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Sunday, December 16, 2007

Books, boys and guns

I was working as a schoolmaster in those days, and happened to look after the school library on the side. There was a very nicely drawn up poster on the wall, telling visitors in big, bold letters about the rules they were all expected to know and obey in order to keep the books safe, accessible and in good condition. One senior boy – a ‘good’ student, if you judged from his examination grades – was once caught red-handed by his classmates, trying to tear out a page from an expensive encyclopedia. The matter was duly reported to the headmaster, who decreed that the boy must pay a hefty fine, be debarred from the library for the whole year, and suspended from the school for a short period. His father, a senior manager in a large local factory, came to expostulate in defence of his son. The boy should be let off lightly, he argued; a suspension would damage his ‘reputation’ and might prove detrimental to his long-term prospects. The headmaster called me over to discuss the matter with this gentleman. I discovered that he was expecting leniency on the plea that it was a first offence, and besides, his boy was a ‘star’ of sorts. Did he know that rules were supposed to be the same for all, and ignorance of the law cannot serve as an excuse for committing a misdemeanour? – Yes, indeed, he did; besides, he admitted that the boy knew that what he was doing was wrong. All right, then, would he condone the same sort of leniency towards a first-time burglar who had broken into his house, I asked. Did he realize that if we let that boy off lightly, he would actually go about boasting about it, and serve as an active encouragement to further, and worse, misdeeds? – The man remained sullen and silent. It was clear that he was accepting the punishment only under protest, and that far from being able to convince him that it was being done for the greater common good, I had made a lifelong enemy that day.

A couple of years later, an old-boy came to look me up in the same library. He had never been a particularly ‘good’ boy, and he was certainly no teacher’s pet; after high school he had acquired some sort of low-level technical education and was currently employed by a private-sector engineering company in a fairly humble capacity. He didn’t have much to say, yet he lingered on, looking more and more uneasy as the afternoon wore on; it was obvious that he was waiting for the hall to clear before he would tell me what he had really come to say. At long last, when I rose to go, he drew out a tattered old book – an entirely forgettable schoolboy thriller – with the school’s mark on it. He had, he said, forgotten to return it when he had left the school five years ago. I thanked him for taking the trouble, but he still wouldn’t go. I waited. There was no point in hurrying him: he would say his piece when he wanted to. Then I was locking up, and he was still lingering beside me, looking worried and utterly woebegone. It was when I was about to leave that he finally blurted out, ‘Actually, sir, I didn’t forget that book, I…I sort of stole it!’ And then the whole thing came out in a rush: how he’d done it on a dare, and how his friends had praised him for it, and how he had forgotten about it for a while, and how the memory of what he had done had been bugging him more and more of late, until he had thought it fit to come five hundred miles to return the book…was it okay now? He was really ashamed and sorry…he just couldn’t make out how he could have been so silly…would I please not despise him for the rest of my life?

It takes all kinds, I know. I only wish they made more of the second kind, and gave less encouragement to the first.

[I wrote this years ago: what brought the essay back to my mind was a horrifying little item in today's newspaper. In connection with the boy who recently shot dead a classmate in a Delhi school, it now seems that his father not only left a gun lying around at home and had taught his son how to use it, but - as the father has confessed to the police (The Statesman, Sunday, December 16, 2007, front page) - he had actually advised his son to kill his 'enemy' and get rid of the trouble. What a country our children are growing up in!]

Friday, December 07, 2007

A little bit of self-defence...

A lot of people are hurt or offended when they get back to me after ages and find me cold. I have a few things to say in my own defence:

Here’s one sample of the kind of people to whom I am deliberately rude. They come and literally cringe and fawn to get their children admitted to my tuitions (it disgusts me to see how little pride they have at that point of time, and how ‘unbusy’ they are – no matter whether they are doctors or engineers, and whether they have big houses and fancy cars and ‘important’ offices to hold); they pay for the course, and then, once the tuition period is over, they – sometimes both parents and children – cannot even recognize me on the street, leave alone offer a civil greeting, even over the phone! The worst of these types are those who, after years of cold shouldering, suddenly turn up at my door at the oddest hour to claim special privilege or admission for some relative, because I tutored them (or their children) years ago – in one case a man who had ignored me for thirteen years at a stretch despite living at a stone’s throw from my house suddenly appeared with such a request! Then there are ex-students who suddenly arrive to claim special attention (meaning free counsel!) for some sort of competitive examination they are appearing for, after six or eight years of complete silence and neglect. Needless to say, I shoo off these people, leaving no doubt in their minds about just how much I despise them, and making sure they’ll never come again. If that makes me ill-mannered and unsocial, I am content. I know I shall never gain anything worthwhile from such people anyway, and they will either ignore or abuse me behind my back no matter what I do for them, so the less I know of such people and the less thankless service I give them the better for me! At this age, as a devoted family man, I work only for love or money, and I find absolutely nothing wrong about that: if any man works with some other motive, he is either a nobler man than me or a fool. In any case, I don’t want to be like him.
As to whether I am really a cold and unloving man or not does not depend on the ignorant or malicious opinion of the above kind. I have scores of ex-students and their parents with whom I have over the years developed closer bonds than one can find in most families. Some of these relationships are now decades old, and have grown warmer and stronger over the years, as we have got to know one another ever better, and gone through a great deal of ups and downs together. But I shall admit this much: I give back profusely, but only when I receive goodness first. These ex-students whom today I love so much and am so grateful to for more favours than I can count or even remember never fell out of touch, or did so only briefly, and made very handsome amends thereafter when they got back – in word, deed and kind! Also, they have not become snobs without having done anything to be really proud about. I have found them to be good people, I consider myself blessed that there are so many of them, that their numbers keep growing every year, and I look forward to many years of happy and close interaction and mutual help with them. I keep wondering every year, as several batches become ex-students, just how many of them will join that list of very close friends in the years to come. It is they who make me feel rich beyond the dreams of avarice; it is they who have saved me from becoming a misanthrope, despite all the badness I have seen.
But I have two grouches to put on record. One is that – considering the number of people I have taught or otherwise helped out since I was a teenager myself – the number of such close bonds I have developed is woefully small. I know good things are always rare, I myself keep telling everybody that diamonds are far more scarce than coals, that is why they are so much more valuable, and yet I cannot help feeling that maybe a lot more people might have bothered to keep in touch. This, especially because so many of my old boys keep telling me that they have friends who once attended my tuitions (or classes in school) and have good memories, but now they feel scared about what kind of welcome they might get if they try to get back in touch after all these years. I am writing to assure all those that the welcome will be warm enough if I feel there is a genuine urge to get back, rather than a prickly desire to defend themselves for having been remiss. Wrong, in my eyes, can always be amended, as soon as one is willing to admit wrongdoing without reservation, without hiding behind lame and silly excuses like ‘I have been busy’. The second – and I am sorry if this raises a lot of hackles, but I am talking cold facts here – is that, although I have taught almost as many girls as boys continuously for 27 years, and although I know I have always treated girls just the same as boys (in fact, lots of my old boys grouch that they had felt the girls got more indulgence and affection from me), and although girls have habitually gushed much more than boys while they were attending my classes, so many more old boys bother to keep in touch than old girls do! And I am tired and sick of hearing the excuses: how can women not feel ashamed of saying they couldn’t keep in touch for years and years together, even by letter, email or phone, because they were ‘busy’, while at the same time insisting that I ought to believe them when they claim that they too have just the kind of good memories as the boys do? The proof of the pudding is always in the eating! – Also, the very fact that a few girls do bother to keep in touch gives the lie to the claim that somehow it is difficult or impossible for women to maintain old ties in our society: the obvious thing to conclude is that women, unlike men (though they can shed far more copious tears far more easily and frequently) as a rule care far less about matters emotional than men do. My wife – who is even more of a woman-hater than I am! – insists that this is true: with rare exceptions women, she says, live only for the moment, for their immediate friends and relatives, and for material satisfactions alone. But I have still not given up hoping. I hope that this post will not only go some way to explain to some of my old girls (and boys) why they find me so wary and aloof when they suddenly knock, say, 18 years after they last saw me, and I still dream that reading this post will induce some of them to get back to me in a way that I can sharply revise my views of humanity in general and womankind in particular for the better. I am raising a daughter, you see, and I want her to be a good, strong, all-round human being, not a typical (and despicable) woman, nor like all the uncouth young men who once crowded my drawing room merely for some notes while inwardly hating me and everything I stood for, or cursed me because I couldn’t take them in!

A word to all visitors, again!

[This is a re-issue of a previous post]
I am gratified to see that of late there have been lots of visitors to my blog (I have installed a counter). However, there are a few things I should like to say:

1. To those who are good folks, and read with intelligent interest, first - a warm thank you. Please do scroll down the right of the home page and click on the links provided to read older stuff - I have been posting since July 2006, and every time you click on an earlier post, you will see still older ones shown as links along the right of the page again. Maybe you will find and like something you have missed. I get lots of nice responses by email and over the telephone and face to face, but I shall be happiest if I get them here, on my blog itself. Also, please post your name (I am sorry, but I will NOT let in anonymous comments, or comments with weird names which are obviously fictitious - even if they say nice things!), and if possible, your email i.d., too, so that I might get back to you if I want to engage you in conversation. Go ahead and let me know who you are: only the mentally sick and those who are scared because they know they are writing offensive trash need to hide! - You might kindly suggest subjects on which you want me to write, and I shall try to oblige, within the limits of my interests and knowledge.

2. To those who dislike me, and/or are entirely incapable of reading (leave alone understanding) long and serious posts on any subject, my request for the umpteenth time is - please don't take the trouble of visiting! I won't miss you.

3. To those who are vicious enough and unemployed enough to keep trying to get through with pure and senseless abuse, I can only repeat, please stop wasting your own time. I alone judge what is to be allowed in as commentary, my own standards alone matter here, like it or not, and rude/silly/irrelevant/uninformed posts simply do not fit the bill, so they will never be allowed; as a rule I don't even read them through before I delete them (these days some of my ex-students do that for me too, so I never even get to see them!). That you bother to keep on hammering away merely reveals how desperately you burn with hatred and jealousy and the knowledge that you can't do a thing about it to rattle me. My happiness and enjoyment of my work is not something that your puny powers of invective can disturb.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Those who love: book review

Those who love, by Irving Stone, originally published by Doubleday, 1965, current Signet edition subtitled ‘America’s greatest love story’, priced at $2.65 (as posted at the fantasticfiction.co.uk website)

As most of the readers of this blog probably know, I live a life immersed in books. Many of them have in fact grown up learning to savour the same taste, the same ‘life of the mind’ with me. Some of them urge me from time to time to write reviews of books which have moved me lately. This post should make such folks happy!

I have read countless great love stories from around the world. Among other things, I have learnt that a) one usually outgrows romantic fiction as silly, mushy and unrealistic (or even faintly sick, like Laila-Majnoon and Wuthering Heights); b) that love stories about married couples are very difficult to write (most married people above 30 should know why!), and c) that love stories about real as well as married people are next to impossible – one very great reason being that authors are turned away by the crudeness, emptiness and dreariness of the lives of 99.9 per cent of married folks, and even if a good book gets written, people carry on their real lives only to make a mockery of the book (as I hear Richard Bach did after writing the lyrical and hauntingly beautiful A Bridge across Forever). Nevertheless, knowing from The Agony and the Ecstasy, The Passions of the Mind and Lust for Life that Irving Stone was a master at re-creating intensively-researched historical lives as though he had really lived in those times and inside the minds of his characters, I took up this book eagerly – not least because it was recommended by an old boy whose tastes I respect, because I knew very little about John Adams beyond a few bare and basic facts (such as that he was a lawyer, one of the Founding Fathers, the second President and father of another great President), and because my curiosity was aroused by the fact that Stone should have chosen to interweave a very personal, private story with a very important and involved political (meaning, naturally, public-) life. I expected a good read, and to say that I was not disappointed would be putting it very mildly. This is most certainly the finest real-life love story I have ever read. A wonder that I had to live to be 44 and married for 12 years myself before I got around to reading it!

The story begins in mid-18th century when pretty, vivacious and precociously-educated 17-year old Abigail Smith, daughter of the parish priest of the little village of Weymouth in Massachusetts, encounters a visitor to her father, a scholarly young lawyer who is yet to make a career but has great energy and enormous ambition. It is almost a case of love at first sight (although the courtship is halting and difficult), and they get married not too long after. Presently they settle down in John’s newly-acquired little farm in Braintree (now called Quincy, after one of Abigail’s famous forbearers), not far from Boston, where John is building up a practice. A few years down the line their growing family gets very thoroughly embroiled in one of the greatest events in world history – to wit, the War of Independence (1775-1781) and creation of the United States of America. The story comes full circle almost half a century later, when John has lost the presidential re-election to another (and vastly better-known) titan, Thomas Jefferson, and is sadly preparing to go home for the last time, his life’s work unfinished. He stands on the stairs of the barely-finished Executive Mansion in the new capital, Washington, D.C. (now globally famous as the White House), waving farewell to his wife, who is leaving early to warm the family hearth for him – and she, her eyes brimming with tears of joy, grief, exhaustion and thankfulness, vividly recalls the day young John had turned to face her in her father’s library with arms outstretched, a book in each hand, ‘and their journey had just begun’. Very early in life she had read that a friend is the greatest treasure in the world, for whom no sacrifice and no love is too great, and she was now quite, quite sure that her husband and she had found in each other the most wonderful friends anyone anywhere could ever hope for. It had been a life full of highs and lows, with very long and repeated stretches of extreme uncertainty and every kind of hardship, deserved and undeserved; it had been so fabulous in parts that John had written to her once that with a little embellishment their family life could become the stuff of fairy tales – but over and above everything, it had been a good life, as I understand the good life and have dreamed of lifelong.

I shall not prolong the summary beyond this point. The book is enormously rich in interesting detail, which must be savoured in their entirety, a little at a time, to do justice to the author and the characters in it. It is definitely not a book for those who are in a hurry, and who basically detest books: which, from my experience as a teacher and bibliophile, instantly eliminates the vast majority of contemporary mankind. I shall instead proceed to list the reflections that were aroused in me while and after reading it.

1. That a woman could grow up so free and self-confident and self-assertive 250 years ago in America, despite being brought up in a very ‘old fashioned’ way, in a very puritan social atmosphere, despite being educated only at home, despite having been ‘only’ a housewife and mother all her life, is, to put it simply, incredible: especially when I compare Abigail Adams’ situation with the horrors of humiliation, deprivation and (often self-imposed) narrowness and triviality of mind and occupation that millions of women suffer even today in many parts of the world (as vividly described, say, in Khaled Hosseini’s 2007 book, A Thousand Splendid Suns), including India.

2. That 250 years ago a stay-at-home girl of 17 could, purely by virtue of her own sharp mind and enthusiasm combined with her father’s encouragement, could become so well educated as to be not only capable of but deeply interested in talking about, and holding her own in educated company much older than herself, subjects as diverse as poetry and philosophy, politics and religion, law and economics and medicine, quoting from the greatest artists and authorities ancient and contemporary at the drop of a hat. Having taught for 27 years, I know for a fact that girls of her age, going to the ‘best’ schools available today, as well as 95% of their supposedly educated ‘teachers’, would simply gape if she were to appear among them suddenly for a group discussion: they would either find her an awe-inspiring super-intellectual or a crashing bore, and she would not be able to believe that humankind, with all their pretensions to ‘progress’, had intellectually as well as aesthetically sunk so low! Food for every thinking man indeed: I am haunted by H.G. Wells’ horrible prediction in The Time Machine that technological advancement, combined with the inevitable numbing of the mind and weakening of the body, would eventually reduce mankind to a race of pathetic, helpless brutes surviving only to serve clever and powerful machines!

3. It is a matter of great shame that I knew so little of how great a man John Adams was (with all his faults and follies), and how long, hard and brilliantly he toiled to create the American Constitution and nation (which have not only endured but inspired and struck with awe virtually every nation on the planet since his time) – especially considering that I (and I believe most non-American people) knew so much more about his illustrious contemporaries and colleagues, such as Ben Franklin and George Washington and Jefferson. It was hugely unfair on the part of fate, I think, that this ‘atlas of independence’, the nickname his countrymen remember him by, lived and worked lifelong in the shadows for the most part, and, in addition, suffered almost lifelong from genteel poverty in contrast with the men mentioned above, so much so that his wife was often driven to despair, and had to worry constantly about how to keep her little farm going and afford the parties and school her children and pay off all her little debts even after she had become the nation’s first lady! The quiet, loving, wise and utterly dedicated way she stuck by her man all her life and not merely kept the family going and brought up her children well but provided the only shoulder John could lean upon when all was bleak all around can only be called heroic, and it was only fitting that her husband understood everything and was grateful all his life (although, admittedly, he never made her happy by pushing for the kind of legislation and social reform that she privately wanted as one of America’s earliest advocates of women’s rights). He knew well how right the Bible was when it said ‘A man who has found a good woman has found a good thing’. My God, what a couple! No wonder Stone decided that John Adams’ life could not be retold without telling us about his wife at the same time.

4. I am deeply gratified to learn – beyond what I knew already, and that was quite a bit – how profound a role books and reading and writing played in the lives of not only the Adamses but of America as an idea and a nation-in-the-making. To the extent that the tradition has continued in America, it is no wonder that they still produce most of the Nobel Prize winners even today, and that lots of good books still sell in the millions. What I worry about is that I hear a great deal of how unacademic the mass of Americans have become these days, how obsessed with indolent fun and technology they are, how most of their progress over the last 50 years has been brought about by hardworking and well-educated immigrants from all over the world, and how much of the worst in their popular culture is blending horridly with all that is worst in our culture, so that so many Indians these days no longer read anything (that is to say, anything outside technical cram-books for passing examinations and pulp fiction) and are actually quite happy if not proud about it.

5. I found it most reassuring to find that yet another tradition remains unbroken among the best Americans: despite being terribly busy all their lives, the Adams man and wife managed to bring up their children just as well as Bill and Hillary Clinton did with Chelsea 200 years later, in a much more distracted and frenetic age: and by bringing up children I expressly do not mean merely providing for them everything from a secure hearth to food to sundry tutors to entertainment, things that can be bought with mere money and require investment of neither time nor brains – ‘busy’ parents in India may please note!

Now this is becoming a long post, so I had better stop here. But if anyone takes the trouble to look up John and Abigail Adams on the internet and then reads the book, I do think that he or she might get back to thank me.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Nandigram and West Bengal politics today

Despite being very upset over the developments centering on Nandigram over the last few months, I have deliberately refrained from commenting on the issue up till now (not that I imagine the comments of someone like me would give the powers that be some sleepless nights!): but now a few words are in order.

Before I launch into my current commentary, I should like to issue a disclaimer, to the effect that I have been politically non-partisan lifelong, avoided politicians of all hues as a matter of principle since I quit journalism back in 1988, I have strong leftist sympathies (as more than one post on this blog will testify); and if compelled to vote I shall still vote for the CPI(M) simply because I cannot see a coherent and credible alternative yet. I think I can clinch my bonafides by pointing out that despite becoming steadily more and more disillusioned with Left politics in Bengal over the last 20 years, I congratulated the present chief minister in the following letter to the editor of The Telegraph (published May 15, 2006) right after his massive electoral victory with a vigorous and seemingly sincere agenda for reform:

“Sir ,
While a decent, intelligent and hardworking chief minister like Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee and his team must be congratulated for having won so convincingly, they should also be reminded of the heightened expectations of the people. The first among them is that the ruling party should not grow too smug and arrogant (especially at the grassroots level); second, that all the deadwood in the government should be removed; third, that we should soon begin to see concrete evidence of the new development programme percolating down to the masses; fourth, that the law-and-order situation will improve; fifth, that power and water might become more easily and reliably available; sixth, that something might be done about the burgeoning population, the root of most of our problems; seventh, that serious steps might be taken to check and reverse the massive environmental degradation that has already taken place; and finally, that many more opportunities might be created for talented people in both the arts and the sciences, so that the exodus of bright young minds to other states and abroad might be checked. This might sound like a tall order, but without these, Bhattacharjee’s dream of Bengal again leading the country will never materialize, and that is sure to take an electoral toll sooner or later.”

Indeed, over the last year and more, Bhattacharjee’s government has been showing some alacrity in at least trying to ensure that a great deal of land is quickly acquired to facilitate the setting up of a variety of new industries and businesses in various parts of the state, which, they claim, is the only way to fulfil the economic expectations of the people – an enormous fraction of whom are unemployed, desperately poor, and increasingly impatient for change. That is as it may be: I shall not join issue with that claim here. They may be quite right (at least from the long-term perspective: even a titan like Amartya Sen seems to believe so); perhaps they don’t even have a choice – if they cannot show reasonably quick results, their political survival might be at stake, and so also Bengal’s best interests. It may also be true that the opposition, such as it is in Bengal, has for its own short-sighted reasons, queered the pitch rather badly over the last year by resorting to less-than-fair and legitimate means of agitation over the land-grab issue, at Singur first and at Nandigram thereafter, pushing the ruling Front towards more and more desperate measures to regain what they perceived to be rapidly shifting political ground. In this context, nothing is more apposite than today’s lead editorial in The Telegraph, and I quote:

“… the alternative was open. It was always possible for any of the warring parties in Nandigram to ask for a full debate on the subject in the Vidhan Sabha. If this was not allowed, they could have appealed to the governor of the state to permit such a debate. This route was never tried; there are reasons to suspect that such an alternative was not even contemplated. Political parties know of the irrelevance of the legislative assembly because they themselves have made the institution irrelevant in West Bengal. Thus the state is that supreme incongruity: a democracy sans democratic institutions.” (Wednesday, November 14, 2007)

But this is not merely troublesome but terrifying as a prospect: it means that we are rapidly moving towards anarchy or some version of totalitarianism, where all notions of right and justice, decency and reason and compromise will be thrown to the winds, only the rule of raw might will prevail: one is automatically and always right as long as one wields the rod (and isn’t that pathetic when it is claimed by those whose only legitimacy comes from being democratically elected?) In such a situation, what difference can it make to very ordinary people like me whether the rulers call themselves liberal or communist or fascist or theocratic? A democratic government must listen, and occasionally defer to, the strident demands of the minority in the opposition: that is the only condition on which the minority can be expected, day in and day out, to accede peacefully to the impositions of the majority! But now it seems that if I do not toe the official line, I am not only bound to be wrong but immediately deserving of being abused, harassed and punished, whether I am a mediaman or a private citizen! Now if we all sadly agree that this is precisely what has happened, it is not surprising (though I find it most heartening) that a separate voice should arise to make the vitally necessary protests against crude highhandedness and callousness on the part of the people in power – that a large number of non-partisan (and normally apolitical) people; civilized, talented people, too, considerable achievers many of them, and held in high social esteem, should have taken (quietly and peaceably) to the streets, demanding that the government get off its high horse and start behaving with responsibility and restraint again. And it is the ruling party/government’s reaction to that development (as evident in the mass media till this evening) that dismays and frightens me. Leave alone the faceless apparatchiks and unlettered strongmen, a chief minister who publicly flaunts his cultural credentials – whom I had all along thought to be a basically decent, sharp and open-minded man – has now not only used strong-arm methods on poor villagers in Nandigram and also on a whole procession of intellectuals of the highest pedigree right in the heart of Calcutta, but blatantly insists that he has been right throughout, that whoever criticizes anything he does is a fraud, a nitwit, a stooge of the opposition, badly deluded – and, worst of all, that they are all apparently ignorant, trivial, worthless people hungry for the limelight!!! In a state where a ‘cultured’ chief minister can get away with branding people of the stature of Mrinal Sen, Sankho Ghosh, Aparna Sen, Rituparno Ghosh, Mamata Shankar, Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay, Shubhaprasanno, Mahasweta Devi, Nabaneeta Deb Sen, Bivash Chakraborty, Anjan Dutta, Joy Goswami and Sumit Sarkar like that, what hope do ordinary people like us have of getting fair treatment – leave alone the millions of ignorant and obscure poor in the remote villages when they get into the rulers’ bad books for one reason or the other? And if the whole educated urban middle class (together they should count in millions!) does not rise up in angry protest to compel such a chief minister to apologise unconditionally and promise to behave better in future, how can we ever again boast of being a far more enlightened and free-spirited people than the denizens of many parts of India whom we still privately love to denigrate as ‘benighted’? Given a perfectly free hand, what kind of utopia is this government likely to create for us – what better than a window dressing of snazzy call centres and shopping malls and multiplexes thinly covering up a reign of abject terror and enforced servility? Firing on armed and hostile villagers I could condone, even putting some places temporarily beyond the reach of the media I could wink at – but abusing, ridiculing and manhandling the intelligentsia was the last straw: because that means that only people with deep pockets and private armies and top-level contacts in the ‘right’ party (no matter how stupid, uncouth and ignorant such people might be) can feel safe and live with a modicum of dignity in this state from now on!

And one final warning to the current rulers: anyone who lives by the sword is condemned to die by the sword. If brute force is allowed to decide everything, then some day a far mightier force can boot the CPI(M) unceremoniously not only out of office but in the ‘dustbin of history’ – one way would be to unleash the public’s real anger and bitterness and disgust at the polls after putting the state under President’s rule, thereby taking away control of the police from the ruling party’s hands and keeping the cadre locked up at home under the shadow of army guns and tanks. They have been shrewdly avoiding that horrid eventuality for thirty years now, but how much longer before the central government’s patience breaks, and political compulsions no longer prevent either the Congress or the BJP (or some bizarre combination of the two in the Lok Sabha) from deciding that enough is enough, and the CPI(M) should be permanently wiped off as a nuisance too big for its boots on the national political map by the simple expedient of eradicating it from the only state where it continues to really matter? Hubris leads rulers to their doom: that is one historical rule to which, I believe, there has not been a single exception in 6000 years of history!

Thursday, October 18, 2007

What a world I live in!

While I yield to none in my respect for individualism and freedom to do one's own thing, I incline to think that, far from truly liberating our lives and souls from the overbearing pressure of the herd, we have only made a world that is too lacking in human warmth: indeed, the true test of healthy individualism, to my mind, lies in the degree to which free individuals can give and share warmth for the brief and flickering span of their worldly existence. Much of the reason for the lack of warmth lay once upon a time in the fact that the struggle for survival was so bitter, so frightening, so exhausting that we didn’t have time and feeling to spare for anything else: now, for most people like us, that era is thankfully past, yet few of us seem to have realized that yet. Much of the continuing reason for lack of warmth among us lies with the huge baggage of silly taboos and inhibitions that we have inherited from our ancestors, who couldn’t help being more foolish than us, and perhaps their times were different too, and made such restrictions necessary – but no longer. Lots of us can afford to become more loving, more giving, and not merely in the financial sense, if we made the mental effort, and it would make the world a far better place to live in for all of us than all the mobiles and credit cards, luxury resorts and fancy motorcycles can do. The trouble is, instead of laying the groundwork for such a healthy civilization to blossom within the foreseeable future, today’s parents, teachers, career-counsellors, advertisement-copywriters and other thought-leaders are drilling a stupid – not to say suicidal – ethic of success in isolation from our fellow-men and women into the minds of today’s young: distrust everybody, at least outside the immediate family circle, fear everybody, regard everybody as only a rival in the ratrace (completely oblivious of the warning that even if you win the ratrace, you are still a rat!); trust, friendship, loyalty, sharing, cooperative work and charity, dreaming and studying things for the improvement of one's character rather than merely finding this or that job are suspect, if not downright dangerous, so avoid them as far as possible. The world is nothing but a battlefield, where we must fight solely for material self-aggrandizement when we are not preening about it! We don’t seem to realize that we are making the world more and more that way through our own efforts to pollute and constrict the minds of the young, imagining all the while that that is how we can best protect them from all kinds of harm and improve their chances of doing well in life – Reader’s Digest carried an article on the ‘bubble-wrap generation’ not long ago. Some people now firmly regard their thirty-year old offspring as immature children in need of guidance! Oh, of course lots of good people are giving advice to the contrary, but looking at the general run of people all over the world, I don’t get the feeling that they are getting through. Rather, the frantic rush for unsocial (not to say anti-social –) success in the purely material sense ‘at all costs’ is making a world full of sullen and vicious or callous people who think that in living purely for themselves and for the moment, wallowing in worldly ‘pleasures’, literally not thinking about tomorrow and forgetting yesterday lies their salvation, and the best they can expect from their fellow-humans is envy at their ‘success’. Naturally they cannot see how very little George W. Bush differs from Osama bin Laden, or rather, how the one makes the other inevitable in a sick world. They say that the world has changed very much lately, but I’m quite sure that if any wise character from the times of the Buddha or Confucius turned up among us, he would be amazed to see how little things have changed.

More than one commentator has noted sadly or with alarm that while the USA is leading the world (by virtue of its pop-cultural hegemony much more than military might, let alone economic clout), it has itself degenerated into a country of the by and large brain-dead (remembering that they are inheritors of the legacy of the likes of titans like Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, and now they cannot idolize bigger men than sportsmen, filmstars and big-ticket CEOs!), so globally it has become a case of the blind leading the besotted by the nose. There is more and more evidence of this in our own country, and not just of the anecdotal kind any more. Almost the entire class of parents I deal with consists of people who can only be called cowardly morons: the depth of their ignorance of the realities of life and their lack of taste and decency are matched only by their greed and aversion to taking risks of any kind, no matter how big the possible rewards might be. They are all non-entities, differentiated only by the size of their bank accounts, and they want their children to become plastic non-entities exactly like themselves – only, they hope, non-entities with fatter bank accounts, and thus more security and 'status' (status only in the eyes of people like themselves, mind – they know perfectly well that neither the vast mass of the hardworking and self-reliant poor nor the scientific/artistic intelligentsia nor the plutocratic elite give a damn about their existence, let alone their status. The successful tycoon regards the average doctor or engineer or accountant in his employ with as much respect as he regards his driver or gardener. These people prefer simply not to think about it). They all want their children to be ‘successful’, and yet not for a moment do they stop to reflect that without health, and loved ones, and time, and good taste, and work that one really likes to do, and certain firm and high ideals, living life constantly in the distracted mode, and constantly following the herd, merely a little bit of money or temporary worldly power can by no stretch of the imagination bring any meaningful success; they can only create more insoluble problems private as well as social.

The really terrible thing is that all these parents are formally educated – meaning they have all gone to college, and some are professionals with large incomes – which gives the lie to the age-old belief that education automatically makes people more liberal, braver, more well-informed, rational and imaginative. They are all talking in panic-stricken voices about the terrible ‘competition’ everywhere, though I can’t see the competition at all, unless you are willing to reduce the idea of competition to keeping up with the Joneses, and recall that millions of these people, who (or whose fathers) got office jobs in their time despite being totally irresponsible and functionally illiterate, know that these days their children won’t have a chance in hell if they are as worthless. When these people moan about the ‘struggle for existence’ they are obviously confusing the idea with the ratrace for more marks for their children in insignificant school-examinations, or a bigger flat, a faster car, a flat-screen TV, membership of the local Rotary Club and other trivialities of the same sort; they have neither known genuine deprivation, nor will their children; at the same time very few of these people have really achieved anything mentionable at all in any kind of serious competition. As I never tire of asking my fellow-Indians, where are the Nobel Prizes and Oscars and Olympic golds? How long has it been since either an Indian inventor or an artist of any kind or a statesman was regarded with esteem worldwide? How much longer before people stop salivating over middle-level jobs with multinationals selling soap or software or settling in New Jersey as success of a significant sort? And how much more of life are they going to sacrifice crazily chasing this kind of pseudo-living? ‘Wake up!’ says every wise man I read, yet nobody seems to be listening, though every kind of self-help book becomes an instant bestseller.

Even more terrible is the development that is becoming apparent everywhere in the sphere of education – a wholesale proliferation of degrees coupled with ghastly dilution of standards and confusion of values in almost every profession, while people keep talking about how ‘tough’ things are becoming with the passage of time. Business schools are now a dime a dozen, and virtually every Tom, Dick and Harry can get and is getting an MBA these days, at least so long as Daddy can shell out a bit of hard cash – and nobody cares whether daddy was a government clerk who grew fat on bribes, or a successful milkman or near-illiterate road contractor whose brother-in-law happened to be some petty political leader with the right connections. It is the same story with engineering courses, more or less. Thousands of jobseekers, all armed with BTech/BE and MBA degrees are queuing up for every low-end, poorly-paid, uncertain job that any reputed company advertises: lots of such people in their late twenties are now doing the work of glorified clerks or maintenance mechanics or salesmen on commissions, and if they are not scrounging, they are living it up solely on the strength of credit cards backed up by their parents’ savings – but just see how high their opinions of themselves are, and how fragile their egos! And yet it is an open but universally suppressed secret that, despite fanatical obsession with ‘education’ from the time they were tiny tots, they are so ill-informed and so poorly groomed that after 16 years of schooling, they are being tested for basic literacy and numeracy (witness the contents of all the MBA-entrance tests) and then being ‘taught’ basic good manners like saying sorry and please and thank you and may I, and learning to sit straight and shut doors quietly and not shout at people and spit right and left and leer at female colleagues and clients and endless inanities of the same sort. The media are having orgasms about the spread of the ‘knowledge economy’, but unless knowledge is reduced to mere functional skills of this or that sort (mostly very low-level and limited to the material sciences, too) there are very few knowledgeable people around these days. If you gave middle-aged adults with college degrees a battery of tests without prior announcement on general knowledge and mental ability and asked them to talk intelligently without notes about five good books they have read in the last six months, ninety percent would fail miserably, and I have in mind not just housewives but everybody from doctors and bank managers to political leaders at the highest levels. And if you think that journalists and university professors would be in a higher, better category, I suggest you get to know some up close. It is the age of the mediocracy with a vengeance, and nobody is so feared, hated and shunned as even a modestly enlightened man.

That man would tell people to stop doing a lot of bad things they habitually do – often despite their education – before they start doing good things. Stop being led by ‘everybody’, he would say; stop being led by your lowest passions, such as greed, fear, envy and sloth; party less and read more for the sake of your health – especially of science (not technology!), history and biography. Laugh more (but snigger less!), get more physical exercise and eat less; travel more, but only to learn and be thankful, not to boast about it later at the club; hanker less after basically useless gadgets and ornaments and do more for charity, open your eyes and see how none of us can really live well in independent isolation: we need other people’s sympathetic and responsible cooperation on a routine basis for a life of high quality, in matters relating to everything from good sanitation to prevention of accidents to policing to health care. Learn to wonder anew at the myriad charms of Nature around you. Stop drooling over advertisements, thrills and amusements and learn to love work and do it with utmost care and attention, not merely because it brings your daily bread and improves your worldly prospects but because it keeps you fit and out of mischief, and because many, many others depend on your work well done exactly as you depend on theirs – at the bank, post office, railway station, school, hospital, marketplace – but hardly ever bother to think about. Don’t mollycoddle your children, nor pose as oracles and tyrants: be good to them by giving them more of your attention and less of indulgence, let them know that you are weak and fallible human beings, allow them to learn from mistakes, set firm but not absurd goals, refine their moral fibre through example rather than lectures, inspire them with high ideals by telling them about the works of great men rather than their incomes! Never, never give them the idea that they were born merely to make a living somehow and show off, that education is nothing but a means to a salaried job or profession. Neither frighten them by portraying the life ahead as an ogre, nor paint an unduly rosy picture by shielding them from all harsh realities; teach them instead how to cope without bitterness and despair and malice. Give them things of the spirit to enjoy, such as music and good books and vigorous games and appreciation of beauty and yourselves as interesting friends, rather than bribing and distracting them with artificial gifts which require nothing but money to acquire, and which merely make people more selfish, more possessive, more envious of those who have more, and constantly dissatisfied because their souls are empty of good feelings. Teach them to take responsibility, instead of reinforcing the innate tendency to blame others and ‘circumstances’ for their mistakes and failures and bad behaviour. Teach them to cultivate patient attention, because nothing worthwhile was ever achieved without it. Above all teach good taste: they should know what is nice and good to do and what isn’t, not because tradition or ‘everybody’ says so but because you have understood that it is only people with good taste who can make a good society, meaning one where almost everybody can aspire to decency and security and happiness. A society which is either clinging to blind tradition or beginning to believe that everything goes because the media say so is bound to dissolve in horrid anarchy pretty soon. Now that teenagers have started beating up parents for money and fornicating in school before web cameras for the sake of catching the public eye, that nightmare is almost upon us: when are we going to wake up?
How many of today’s parents (including those who are supposed to be ‘leaders’) can listen to the above sermon and honestly admit to themselves that if the wise man is right, then they are doing almost everything wrong – the most terrible wrong being drilling the idea into their children that they ought to be respected and listened to regardless of all the evil and folly in them?

Friday, September 28, 2007

New 'superbike' in town...

I was horrified to read the bottom article about Durgapur on the front page of The Statesman of Sunday, September 23, 2007. I would urge all visitors here to read that 'news' item and then look up the essay by G.K. Chesterton called The Worship of the wealthy which I posted on this blog in March this year. The following is with reference to the contents of that article. I have so much to say on this subject that I can only make a few points here, and that too, as categorically as possible, so let me number them:

1. ‘This world has enough for man’s needs, but not enough for man’s greed’. Someone far greater and wiser than most of us said that three generations ago, admonishing the wantonly wasteful lifestyles of the west. Why should anybody ‘need’ a 1300 cc motorcycle?
2. Given the condition of the roads here and the traffic control facilities, where in or around Durgapur can I ride such a vehicle without endangering the lives of a lot of people including my own all the time? And if I am too stupid or callous to understand that, why shouldn’t society (in the shape of the laws, the police and the courts) be alert, wise and stern enough to restrain the likes of me? Is that what democracy has come to mean – let people do whatever they like, because all humans and all their acts are equally worthless, so the more they kill and maim each other the better?
3. It is interesting in a most black-humorous way that there are now supposedly so many moneyed men in Durgapur that all kinds of big business houses – from jewellers to automakers – are flocking to open up showrooms around this town. Interesting, because I cannot shut my eyes to the facts that a) so many people on whom we depend for all our little comforts, from milkmen to maidservants to rickshawpullers and dhobis still live in shanties, feed on scraps and clothe themselves in rejects (they are all faltu people not worth bothering about, right?); b) there is not a single full-fledged firstclass hospital in this town, nor a single library or art gallery worth the name; c) The sale of non-textual books (everywhere a vital sign of the cultural level of the people!) is abysmal, while mobiles and bikes and sarees and all kinds of foodstuff sell at scorching pace; d) the best jobs that most ‘educated’ young people growing up here can aspire to these days are those of airhostesses, store-attendants, receptionists, maintenance mechanics, sales agents and clerks of various hues, including the 'cybercoolie' types (proof - lakhs of young people with master’s degrees and even PhDs are desperate to find an assured primary-level teacher’s job in a government school, as you can check with the School Service Commission examination figures!): what will these people do all their lives except burn with frustration and envy, or let the credit-card seller tie the noose around their necks, so as to hang them a few years down the line? e) lots of people my age or a little older are somehow scraping along on pensions, rents and various kinds of petty commission-agencies: people who have (usually worthless) teenage sons to support and daughters to marry off, people to whom Rs. 20,000 a month is a ‘lot of’ money: don’t we need to spare a thought for such folks too? f) most of the new businesses that have come up in and around this town – from which all that easy money is flowing in, I suppose, besides lucrative government contracts – are the low-technology, high-polluting, ill-paying, short-term variety: the mushrooming sponge iron plants being one case in point. Nothing to be terribly proud about, especially in a town which started off with a state-of-the-art integrated steel plant nearly 50 years ago!
4. I am no communist, but if indeed so many people are making so much money so easily (I know at a very personal level that many of these people can hardly read, so no one can convince me that they are using a lot of brains to make their piles, as long as we agree that it is only men of the Satyen Bose and Satyajit Ray types who can be credited with brains!), why should they be allowed to flaunt that money on dangerous baubles (remember, almost everything we can do is ultimately based on social permission: not even very rich men are allowed to keep slaves or burn their wives any more!)? Even more, why should their wives and children be allowed to do so: what contribution have they made to society, and by what right can they claim that they deserve such disgusting luxury – what is it except their luck that they have found rich husbands or fathers? Why should such people (again, I know from personal experience that they are often ignorant, dull and uncouth human beings) be allowed to throw their weight about (behaving rudely with all and sundry) because their cars and bikes have bought them some ‘status’? What have we become as a society that most of us have tacitly accepted that luxury and bad manners are the true indicators of status, rather than knowledge, good taste, courage, imagination or charity? – and if this goes on, how long before countervailing phenomena start proliferating too: armed criminal gangs prowling around freely (as has indeed happened in many parts of this country already) killing, looting and kidnapping for ransom those wives and children of rich folks as an accepted way of equalizing intolerable differences in lifestyles? The super-rich might still be able to afford fortunes on personal security: but how many greedy middle-class people (those to whom, as I said earlier, even Rs. 20,000 is a lot of money), who are now slavering over how fast this town is ‘developing’, will then be able to avoid sleepless nights?
5. Is this what the meaning of ‘development’ has degenerated into? Once upon a time I was taught as a student of economics that it referred to things like per capita income, the fair distribution of that income, high life expectancies and literacy rates and balanced sex-ratios, absence of crime and beauty and cleanliness of the environment, clean drinking water for everybody and good sanitation and housing and good social security for everyman, especially women, children, the old, the ill, the handicapped and the unemployed… are we now all together determined to turn a blind eye to how miserable the state of things is all around us, and cheer gleefully that Rs. 14-lakh bikes are now available in town (but not anti-snakebite emergency care)? Is that all the ‘development’ we need: a few people buying up expensive and useless toys as and when they are advertised as the latest fads, and a vast number allowed to salivate over the ‘achievements’ of those few?
6. If indeed this town has become so chock-full of plutocrats, wouldn’t it pay us as a society to take a good hard look at how they make their money and how fully they pay their taxes? Again, I know as a student of economics, an avid reader and a teacher that such an investigation will invariably open up a ghastly can of worms! The great American economist John Kenneth Galbraith lamented over shocking private wealth amidst public squalor – which was the situation in the USA in the 1960s (and to some extent it still is, though they have managed to plaster over the ugliest aspects of their reality by cleverly using the enormous wealth that is available to them as a nation: India, alas, is not likely to have that kind of per capita income in a hundred years!), and is rapidly becoming the situation in India today. When shall we wake up to the urgent need to ensure, firstly, that people are allowed to get rich only by reasonably honest and socially useful means, and secondly, that they ‘justify their existence’ by taking on a large share of the burden of creating a just and good society? Why should it be that an enormous number of rich people in this country have tiny bank balances (because they prefer to deal only in cash), and their luxurious lifestyles are entirely out of keeping with the incomes they declare? Why are all our laws so designed and geared that they actually help the super-rich to get away with paying tiny fractions of what they should pay in taxes (which is why the government has to keep on complaining that it never has ‘enough’ money for vital social projects – like ensuring proper drainage in Kolkata! – even while the official list of Indian dollar-millionaires keeps getting longer every year)?
7. As one commentator on my last blogpost wrote, it is shocking that even a newspaper like The Statesman is now stooping to such trivial sensation-mongering in the name of journalism. Comparing with what newspapers did during our freedom struggle, at great risk to their very existence, things have come to a pretty pass indeed! And for those who might pipe up to point out that even journalists must eat, so they must give the public what it wants, I have two things to say: that argument is exactly like saying that since my public, namely pupils and their parents, by and large want to get through examinations the easy way, I should change my style and make a business out of finding and leaking question papers with failsafe answers thrown in! and secondly, that journalists, like teachers, were once upon a time expected to ‘teach the public what it should want’! All those who simultaneously exult about how much ‘progress’ we have been making lately should reflect upon whether any country can progress when all of us, especially the best educated and best-fed among us, have become intellectually dull, spiritually sterile and morally bankrupt. In what way are we educated, when all we believe is that everything goes as long as the advertisers say so?

To any would-be commentator: please don’t be in a hurry to write something in reply. It is my experience that most people are like that (especially in this distracted age when college graduates can't or don't bother to spell correctly), so they haven’t read and understood an entire blogpost before they dash off a comment: as a result they either say irrelevant things, or things I have already said, or things that are just plain wrong because they didn't take the trouble to check out the facts first, or things from which I can clearly make out that they haven’t made an effort to comprehend what I was saying.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

What is 'eternal'?

Here’s some rather ‘heavy stuff’ that I have written in response to a question emailed to me by an ex-student, now in university:

Sir,
Another question: How can one discern what is just a passing fad (thousands of Kabbalah believers are flocking to Israel, and that includes some of the biggest Hollywood stars) from what is truly eternal? Even some philosophical lines of thought (the Epicureans for instance) seem to have been just a passing phase. One might become a devotee of one specific line of thought and later discover that it was just a fad (thereby losing a lot of important time).
Please Sir, don't for a moment think that I am either trying to question your knowledge or trying to test you (I am not that audacious). Please think of me as a mere student trying to learn.
Sayan Datta.
That question set off a train of thoughts so long and complex that I realized it would take a pretty long letter to Sayan to do even the least justice to him, and in case I did write this letter, why not post it on my blog, that many others who might be interested get to read and reflect further on their own?

As I have noted in the book I wrote for my daughter, in one sense nothing is eternal in this universe: even the Himalayas are ‘young’, having been around for only 70 million years; stars keep being born and exploding into supernovas just a few billion years down the line, and most of us who are contemporaries will be history and forgotten a hundred years from now: a mere twinkling of an eye from an astronomer’s or geologist’s perspective, ‘too short’ even for historians to pass confident judgment upon. At the same time, don’t we habitually say about World War II that it happened ‘a long time ago’, and that a man who has seen his 80th birthday has lived a long time? It isn’t that these are foolish comments either: after all, as humans, we regard and judge, assess and measure all things first and foremost from the human perspective (so a ship is ‘big’ and an ant is 'small'), and who is to say that that is wrong? As a scholar, a physicist or biologist or historian might know that the sudden death of his child is ‘not important’, but he would be less than human if as a father he didn’t find it earth-shattering! So the poet is justified in talking about ‘the eternal snows’, the French king was right when he sighed ‘the more it changes, the more it remains the same’, just as Heraclitus was right in saying that ‘all is flux’, nothing survives forever … that’s relativity for you! And if anyone finds this little disquisition rather confusing and unsettling, and is provoked to ask what is the need for this kind of philosophical musing, the answer would be that it is a practice that gives you a profound mental poise, clarity and equanimity, even while equipping you with the power to see everything from many different viewpoints – to be dispassionately aware in the heat of battle that it doesn’t really matter in the long-term perspective whether one wins or loses – and so perhaps to be able to act wisely and without haste: a power that is given to very few, especially in the contemporary world, where everybody is so busy ‘acting’ that they have almost completely lost the power to reflect upon and plan their actions, to analyse their own motives clearly, and to take into account the likely consequences. Hence witness the plethora of calamities we have brought upon us by way of the population explosion, nuclear weapons, global warming, millions of disturbed families with ‘educated’ children who cannot spell, and terrorism and counter-terrorism and what have you! It doesn’t do anybody any good to forget that Aristotle warned long ago: ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’. He would have been horrified to see how many people there are in the world today with degrees to boast of, money in their pockets and nothing in their heads. Even the CBSE authorities, I read in the paper this morning, are now planning to set examination questions to school-leaving children which will urge them to think more and cram less!

And if Sayan has started wondering ‘when is he going to answer my question?’, I’ll beg his indulgence and ask him to notice that I have answered a part of it already! Most men sleep through a third of their lives; as for the rest of the time given to them, they spend most of it shopping, gossiping, watching TV, attending silly parties which yield no real benefit spiritual, intellectual or financial, being (or pretending to be!) ill, grudgingly memorising things for examinations most of which they will never need in later life, or doing some kind drudgery (think of bank clerks and IT code writers) just to earn their daily bread and drag on their miserable and purposeless existence for a few years more … in fact most of our time is ‘wasted’ anyway, we have just never been made aware of it, that’s all. So there’s no need to fear that you will ‘waste’ your time pursuing some philosophy/practice/ideal for a few (or even several) years: even if you give it up as a foolish illusion afterwards, you will be wiser for having discovered it for yourself. Thomas Edison was not frustrated with his long research that went into discovering the tungsten filament for the first electric bulb; he said he had discovered two thousand things that won’t work (and that was not a silly joke, actually – try to imagine what an immense amout of labour he saved later generations of researchers. That in fact is precisely how science keeps progressing – nothing really goes waste).

Two more confusions need to be cleared up, Sayan. While it is indeed true that lots of people run after one passing fad or the other (some, in fact, live to chase fads lifelong!), the things they are chasing as fads may not actually be mere fads at all! The message of Harry Potter is anything but a fad (I find it is essentially the same message as that of the Gita!), though the decade-long craze over the books has indeed been a fad with nine out of ten ‘fans’ – you will see how right I was when you observe that those nine out of ten have forgotten all about the craze as well as the books ten years from now. So with the Kabbalah: if you make a short search on Google, you will find for yourself that though it might have caught a lot of people’s fancy anew (and for the passing moment only), thousands have been studying and practising it with the utmost seriousness and devotion for many centuries, unmoved by whether they are currently in fashion, or being ostracised and oppressed for it. As for Epicureanism, who says it has been forgotten? One of its ideas – do not believe in gods and omens – has become a central tenet of ‘modernism’ since the days of the 18th century Enlightenment in Europe, while another – eat, drink and be merry, with no thought for the morrow – seems to have become (alas!) the dominant philosophy of the early 21st century, though 99.9% of its subscribers may neither know its name nor its history, let alone what its founder really meant! And secondly, do not go by what ‘some of the biggest Hollywood stars’ are currently doing – since when did that particular tiny section of the populace become leaders of thought? The wisest man I have ever heard of insisted with his last breath on the necessity of thinking things out for oneself: he was a teacher in the grandest sense of the word, and he knew better than anyone else that the best of teachers can only hold your hand for a little while; they cannot lead you to enlightenment.

I shall open up one last line of thought: why focus exclusively on what is eternal? Jesus, who like all great masters taught us to aim at eternity, also asked us to catch the day and make fullest use of the passing moment – ‘be thou as the lilies of the field… give us this day our daily bread’! Tolstoy wrote that the most important time is always now, and Longfellow (in A Psalm of Life) and Kipling (in If) have insisted on the selfsame outlook. So that, too, must not be lost sight of. It is in striking a happy equilibrium between living in the present and aiming at eternity that there lies the mystery of living the good life!

Let that be enough for the time being. If Sayan (or other readers) have some questions, please post them on the blog itself, and I shall try to answer them to the best of my ability. – and if anyone asks whether or not I am sufficiently employed (seeing that I seem to have so much time left over for doing stuff like writing this little essay), and what I get out of it, I shall only say that it gives me a kind of pure enjoyment that I could never have got out of pursuing a merely hedonistic life, eating and drinking and killing time at multiplexes and shopping malls, or brooding over credit card bills, quarrelling with my wife, eyeing other people’s wives, or yelling at my daughter to study hard and get more marks in school. I am infinitely thankful to God that he has given me a livelihood and lifestyle which allows me to think and talk like this all the time. I am also immensely thankful that I am in touch with so many old boys like Sayan who keep prodding my grey cells all the time with questions like the one above: without such regular exercise, I would have become brain-dead, like 90% of my contemporaries! Sayan has belittled himself quite unnecessarily out of a most gentlemanly modesty. He is not a ‘mere’ student but a student in the finest and rarest sense of the word, and I am proud to be remembered (and still consulted) by many people like him.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

I have seen God's glory

God in His infinite wisdom fulfils Himself in many ways. Everything, therefore, even illness and pain, is just and good and necessary in the total scheme of things. I have walked alone since I was 17, and it has been a rough ride, but most exhilarating too. My only grouch – one which grew deeper with the passage of years – was that nobody seemed to really care much for me as a human being, beyond the work that I did (and that, too, attracted a disproportionate amount of opprobrium along with the admittedly lavish accolades). My great good fortune was that I never fell ill (nothing beyond what, in my book, can only be called minor irritants) over a span of nearly a quarter century: I just soldiered on, like a mindless bulldozer; ‘nothing’s ever going to happen to me, I can’t afford anything to happen, there’s nobody to look after me’. After a sickly childhood, I had nearly forgotten what going to the hospital was like, except for the sake of others. And although I kept telling myself and everybody around me how deeply grateful I was, how being fit all the time is one of the greatest of treasures, maybe He who knows me far better than I ever could saw that something was lacking, something missing in me, some lesson that I needed to learn yet… and so, very shortly after I wrote my last blogpost, lamenting on the eve of our 60th Independence Day that I can see so few good men, let alone great ones, around me that I could be really proud of India and dream of a great future for her, I went down with acute appendicitis, and was whisked off to hospital and operated upon at very short notice … to make the long story short, here I am, back again, recovering happily, enjoying my first proper ‘medical leave’ from work in 20 years, and despite the niggling pain and discomfort and downtime, my heart is filled with a very warm glow of gratitude, contentment and wonder. How I needed to be ill!

Of course I was looked after by superbly skilled men. But skill is not the highest thing I respect – I have a few skills myself, and I have known some skilled scoundrels too. What I found was what I respect most, yearn most to see around me, try hardest to give to all I deal with, and lament most the lack of in so many of my countrymen: sincerity of purpose, devotion to duty, and above everything else, caring for one who is helpless, suffering, and in need, caring to the extent of going out of one’s way, beyond the call of duty, to lend a kindly helping hand just in time. And I cannot put in words the degree of amazed gladness that I felt to see just how many people did exactly that, how eagerly, instantly, and unstintingly. To name everyone who dropped in with a kind and encouraging word and an offer of help would fill pages, so I can only tell you all a very big ‘Thank You!’ from the bottom of my heart, hoping that each one of you will understand I am saying this personally. But a few especially – a few doctors and their wives and sons – have put me eternally in their debt, and the most heartfelt of thank you-s would be too poor a recompense for them. Name them I would, if I didn’t know it will only embarrass them: true gentlemen dislike open and fulsome praise. I don’t know what little service I might have done them once upon a time, but nothing of that sort could have ‘earned’ what they did for me: nothing but the greatness of their own souls can explain the gift of love I have received. If God reveals Himself mostly through one’s fellow-men, I have seen Him in the last few days. I have learnt, firstly (alas for all my countrymen who will never know) that neither money nor power can buy the human touch; secondly, that India is home (as she has always been) to both the worst and the best sort of men (may the latter tribe increase, may our mothers inspire their children with the right examples!); thirdly that even my foulest detractors serve a purpose in God’s divine plan, for how could I know how good some men can be except by comparing them with the worst – those who abuse me through insane, impotent envy and rage because someday, somewhere, I did some good to them? How can you praise the light unless you have seen the darkness? And above all else, I know that as long as some men and women (and old boys) like the ones I am inwardly praising even as I write are alive and active, committed to their work and resolved to fight on regardless of having to work most of the time for wretched ingrates, trying to make things a wee bit better just by being the best they can, this country cannot go to the dogs yet! For the sake of this joyous realization, I shall gladly go through a trauma like last week’s ten times over again.

As for my wife - I know she'll hate to see me going public with this, so I'll limit myself to one line - that she is indeed my better half, I now have no doubts at all. Nor, indeed, that my daughter is very quickly growing up to become the mother I never had.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

My mother is sixty!

Free India is going to be sixty tomorrow!
Here are a few ruminations for the occasion to share with all my fellow Indians:

I am one of those folks who have been simultaneously cynical and deeply, incurably sentimental on the ‘unfashionable’ question of patriotism lifelong. Why can’t I find many people who are like that – what is so bad or stupid about it?

I cannot grow viciously excited when India is about to beat Pakistan in a cricket match and at the same time slaver and fawn over anyone who has got a green card to settle in the USA.

I cannot wax eloquent over how ‘rich and glorious’ my culture is while millions of little girls are sold and raped routinely in my country and few ‘educated’ Indians can speak or write either English or their native tongues correctly. Nor can I gush over what tremendous ‘progress’ India has been making economically while 300 million plus still wallow in the most abject poverty, and the whole middle class worships anybody who has a lot of money, no matter how dirty that money might be.

I criticize my countrymen all the time not because I hate and despise them, but because I want that they all take an oath to think a little less about petty and narrow interests (me and my family and our shopping) and bother more about larger ones (the per capita income, the prevalence of superstition and corruption, the general backwardness of our technology, the exploding population) – so that some day, through the combined, sincere, skilful and unidirectional efforts of a billion plus Indians, India can again become truly one of the leaders of the world, in terms of material prosperity, in terms of cleanliness and greenery all around, in terms of the safety and dignity enjoyed by the old, the very young, the handicapped, the ill and women, in terms of Nobel Prizes, Oscars and Olympic golds, in terms of shared pride in all that is good and great about ‘our’ culture, and in terms of the number of Indians alive whom the whole world acknowledges as great – such as when both Gandhi and Tagore were alive and active, or such as when the best students from all over the world came to Nalanda University in search of wisdom, or when the whole wide world, from Rome to the far east, had fallen under the spell of everything Indian.

I am a dreamer. ‘So am I!’, a hundred million other Indians will clamour at once. But are you, really, I ask them. And do you dream big (can you think, for instance, that there is greatness beyond becoming the BPO capital of the world, or being the largest churner out of B and C-grade movies)? If you do, think about the pledge of allegiance that every American child is taught to repeat every day in school: “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” Then ponder, also, over what has come to be known as the American’s creed: "I believe in the United States of America as a government of the people, by the people, for the people; whose just powers are derived from the consent of the governed; a democracy in a republic; a sovereign Nation of many sovereign States; a perfect union, one and inseparable; established upon those principles of freedom, equality, justice, and humanity for which American patriots sacrificed their lives and fortunes. I, therefore, believe it is my duty to my country to love it, to support its Constitution, to obey its laws, to respect its flag, and to defend it against all enemies."

If a few fellow Indians share my love and respect and dreams for India in exactly that spirit, I call upon them all to vow with me along the following lines: “I love my country and want that she become great again. To that end, I swear that, however humble my capacity, I shall not harm her but try to do what little good I can – by never taking a shortcut in life, never giving or taking a bribe, never shirking responsibility, never preferring ease and convenience over duty, never believing that somehow getting and keeping a job is the highest goal to which every other ideal and principle must be unthinkingly sacrificed, never allowing cheating, cruelty and injustice to flourish unopposed before my eyes if I can help it, and always doing the work that brings my daily bread with as much love and respect and sincerity as I can, no matter what anybody has to say about it. I shall never again say that patriotism is for others to practise. – And I shall dream big for my country, whether or not my dreams come true in my lifetime. Jai Hind!”

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

The Sense of Wonder

Albert Einstein used to say that one who has lost the sense of wonder has lost everything. All science was born out of wonder, and so was all great art. The great pioneering environmental crusader Rachel Carson wrote a lovely little book called 'The Sense of Wonder', wherein she asserted that a parent's/teacher's most important task was to strengthen, cultivate and satisfy a child's innate sense of wonder. It was in that same vein that Tagore sang 'akaashbhora surjo tara, bishwobhora praan/tahaari majhkhane aami peyechhi more sthan/ bishmoye tai jaage amaar gaan...'. I am infinitely grateful that unlike most 'grown-ups' my age and more, I can still feel that childlike wonder at many, many things. Very little things, too, like rain pattering on leaves, and my daughter smiling in her dreams, and that every year, while dealing with an endless stream of lazy moronic pupils, a little gem turns up who makes all my efforts worthwhile. I could name a hundred other things, but it's quite unnecessary.
If only more of us could preserve that sense of wonder, far fewer people would burn with boredom, frustration and envy of those who appear to be successful and happy beyond their reach, and therefore cannot think of any better way of entertaining themselves than vilifying such others, never once pausing to reflect that they are only spitting in the air with their heads turned upwards!

It's very funny

...that a lot of people feel this terrible compulsion to visit my blog only so that they may spew venom at me! Whether I write about love or Harry Potter, careers or religion, whether I post stories that I have written or poems that have charmed me, whether I pay tribute to an old faithful servant who has passed away or review a book, all these creatures can say (and I am sure they never read all this stuff, let alone understand, reflect and appreciate) is that I am so selfish and self-obsessed. And in their book anyone who comments with courtesy and knowledge and understanding is automatically a flunkey, whereas they are 'true' critics merely because they can so easily abuse things that they don't understand, nor care to!
The most wonderful thing is that these critters can dish it out but they can't take it: they cannot recognise their own crudeness, hollowness and uncouthness as such, but when I return it in the same coin with interest (having always believed in Lincoln's dictum, 'be gentle with the gentle, and harsh with the harsh'), they find me unbearably hurtful.
For heaven's sake, who ever compelled them to visit my blog in the first place?

Spare me!

Someone has just written as a comment on my blogpost titled ‘Freedom and responsibility’ – “I challenge you to write a blog on this topic i.e. YOUR perception of yourself. Let us see what you've got.” For his information, I posted exactly that, an essay titled ‘What sort of a person am I?’ quite some time ago: he simply didn’t have either the wit or the patience to look for it, though he had time and energy spilling over to write like that, imagining that it made him sound much smarter than he was. Now the comment (taken in its entirety) shows not only that the writer is not literate by the minimal standards of grammar and spelling (and, like 90% of the people I have perforce to deal with, will squirm and excuse himself if pressed by saying he was busy or isn’t too well used to using the keyboard or some garbage like that!), but also that it is beyond his mental capacity to read, absorb, assimilate, reflect upon and then comment on an essay like ‘Freedom and responsibility’ as a whole. Of course I forgive him for being intellectually challenged (alas, so many supposedly educated people are that way these days – so many MTechs and MBAs in India cannot make proper sense of Harry Potter, and an essay by Bertrand Russell would leave them gasping!), and don’t expect him to do any better with the other essay I have mentioned. But I wish that my blog would attract comments only from those above the sub-moronic level: is that too much to ask? – how stupid can one be not to be able to see that one’s fulminations are fuelled merely by ignorance, helpless envy and petty malice? Genuine criticism is both an art and a science, and requires profound cultivation of the mind: it’s simply not for those who are determined to imitate yapping curs!

Monday, July 09, 2007

The world we are making for our children

(This is a response to posts on several recent threads at my orkut community, ‘The Good Life!’, especially Ranajoy Ganguli’s musing aloud on what kind of world we are making for our children):

Look at how low India still ranks on the UNDP Human Development Index, and the Corrupt Nations ranking made annually by Transparency International (and juxtapose that with the fact that the whole middle-class in India is constantly complaining about how ‘other people’s’ corruption is taking India to the dogs).

Consider that most of us – whether we are doctors, lawyers, accountants, engineers, policemen or teachers – are thieves, or at least kaamchor as they say in Hindi: at least in the sense that we don’t think there’s anything seriously wrong or condemnable about stealing stationery from the office, or taking commissions from diagnostic-test centres for prescribing needless tests, or padding our travel bills, or inflating students’ marks for bribes which are politely called fees, or skipping work at the factory or office or hospital to ferry our wives to the shopping mall or our children to tuitions, or simply taking leave to attend friends’ and relatives’ weddings, regardless of the huge number of official holidays we already get throughout the year! And reflect that few of those doing it consider these things as serious wrongdoing: it is always others’ deeds that are serious wrongs!

Think of how most of us cannot think of anybody’s interests as important outside our families’ – my wife’s shopping is important, my son’s career progress is important, my daughter’s safety is important, but I cannot imagine that everybody else has the right to think the same way. That is what makes us one of the most corrupt and heartless countries in the world. Open your eyes and look at how intensely ‘status’-conscious we become as doctors, engineers, etc etc (and get very angry if anybody dares to ask whether we are good at our jobs, and sincere and hardworking, and habitually take personal responsibility for our failures), and, despite having read in school that all citizens ought to be treated, if not as equals, at least with minimal decency and courtesy, we talk to, and about, our drivers, maidservants, postmen, rickshawwallahs, small shopkeepers as though they simply do not count at all as human beings (haven’t you noticed how the same housewives who haggle obscenely over five extra rupees with a rickshaw puller think nothing of buying Rs. 50 goods from snazzy shops for Rs. 250? And how loudly they complain about their maidservants taking sudden holidays, though they pay these drudges only a few hundred rupees a month, and don’t notice that their husbands, who are paid at least fifty times that much, do exactly the same thing – let alone feeling ashamed about it? And how angry their children get if it is suggested that their parents cannot be called bhadralok)? Think of how viciously ‘patriotic’ we are during an India-Pakistan cricket match, and yet the same people regard getting a green card to settle in the US, or at least a job with an American MNC in Bangalore the highest that ‘achievement’ can mean! I can go on and on in this vein…

And in connection with APJ Abdul Kalam’s recent lament (uttishthata.org/2007/07/06/a-letter-to-every-indian-apj/) about how all of us Indians suffer from a profound sense of inferiority vis-à-vis white skinned foreigners, and take too little pride in all our achievements since independence, I must point out a few things without in essence disagreeing with our venerable President : 1) our achievements (given our size, and the time we have had, and the supposed depth and richness of our culture) are too small and too few in comparison to our massive failures/black spots – having the largest number of unemployed people/illiterate people/child labourers/female infanticides in the world, for example, entirely outweighs and eclipses the fact that we are also the largest milk producers; 2) the President has been maturing since he wrote Ignited Minds – when he believed, it seems to me, that persuading a few children to take nice solemn oaths on 26th January about becoming good citizens would solve our problems more or less painlessly at one stroke. He has, in the same speech, mentioned how shamelessly we pass the buck and expect somebody else (in the final analysis, the government!) to do everything for us, from removing garbage to removing corruption, without shaking a finger ourselves – and, I should like to add, we all imagine that it can all be done without breaking eggs: none of us should ever be seriously punished for our crimes of omission and commission, otherwise we shall vote such a ‘bad’ government out of office! 3) “Like lazy cowards hounded by our fears we run to America to bask in their glory and praise their system. When New York becomes insecure we run to England. When England experiences unemployment, we take the next flight out to the Gulf. When the Gulf is war struck, we demand to be rescued and brought home by the Indian government. Everybody is out to abuse and rape the country. Nobody thinks of feeding the system. Our conscience is mortgaged to money.” … that’s the President I am quoting, and I couldn’t have put it better myself! The only thing where I would like to demur with Mr. Kalam is that he should have specified that by ‘we’ he means the middle and upper classes – the poor and the lower middle classes are still far more honest and hardworking as a rule (perhaps simply because they cannot afford to be otherwise!), and if India has any hopes at all, it lies in unleashing the creative and productive powers of the lower 50% of the population, while grinding the rich and the well-off under her heels: work hard, stop looking for shortcuts, pay your taxes, don’t pretend to be demigods before your parasitical children whom you constantly bribe with toys and fattening foods so they might ‘love’ you, and don’t run away after taking the best of what India has to offer you, or indulge in plain cheating and robbery in the name of business here! Nothing angers me more than people with two-storey houses and cars hiding or justifying all their wickedness and stupidity by calling themselves sadharan lok!

4) Where have all our standards gone? Why is it that we admire/envy/fear money over and above everything else these days? A man whose only qualification is that he has a lot of money is a very petty creature indeed – read Chesterton’s scathing remarks in the essay titled ‘The worship of the wealthy’ posted earlier in this blog! Once upon a time the emperor of India knew he would benefit by sitting at his teacher’s feet; no billionaire imagined that he was more than the dust beneath the feet of someone like Napoleon, and tens of millions worshipped Gandhi, knowing full well about the existence of the Nizam of Hyderabad, who was then reputedly the richest man on earth! Why is it that today, even if we admire someone like Narayan Murthy, it is only because of the pile he has made, and has nothing to do with his life’s work? If we do not admire all our good teachers, doctors, policemen, judges, writers, bureaucrats and legislators (and I know for a fact that there are still many), and if we all shun those jobs in favour of safe and comfortable positions without too much serious responsibility in the IT/BPO/banking/retail sectors (provided we haven’t run away to do ‘research’ in the USA already!), where do we expect the good, honest, clever and hardworking people will come from to do all those jobs which a society really needs to thrive and prosper? And how dare we claim, after shunning our own responsibilities, that all those vital sectors have now become full of ‘corrupt’ people? What on earth might our children be learning, watching all the time what greedy, dishonest, hypocritical time-servers most of us parents have become? Is it any wonder that in most colleges in India, one who does not pass exams merely by last-moment cramming and cheating is considered ‘weird’? Is it a wonder that despite all I can do to make my tuitions interesting (from storytelling to showing movies to playing games to holding quizzes), a great number of pupils come only to doze and yawn and gossip among themselves and scribble notes which they have no intention of really making an effort to understand and remember for keeps? And isn’t it wonderful that we still dream that a land full of such do-numberi people will soon become one of the leaders of the world?

Which brings me to the question raised in Ranajoy’s thread at the forum of my orkut community, ‘The Good Life!’ I cannot speak for all parents, but there are some ground rules I have set myself ever since my daughter was born, and haven’t broken once in these last eleven years:

1. Forget marks, certificates, degrees … I shall never ask God anything more than to keep her safe in body and happy in mind.
2. I will not mollycoddle her: she must gradually learn to take more responsibility and work more and more (at everything including domestic chores) as she grows up, so that at 18 she can be a fully self-reliant and worldly wise human being.
3. She will be taught that she is a human being first and a girl thereafter. She must behave with all girls and boys accordingly.
4. She will be taught the importance of money – first by buying things she wants only out of what she has saved from her pocket money, and thereafter only what she has earned (she has been earning variously since she was seven). That way alone, I believe, she will neither be greedy, nor profligate, nor envious of money, and she will only despise those among the rich whose money is all dirty money or easy money.
5. I will persuade her to read lots of good books, including the great classics of literature. I am convinced that no one ever became fully human without that.
6. I will cultivate her taste for good music and travelling in the right spirit, and encourage her to keep fit through various kinds of games and exercises.
7. I will strive to set her very high ideals. As an example, I have already drilled into her that merely rich men are not even worthy of being called human beings in the same breath with, say, the Buddha, or Sri Ramakrishna, Tagore or Einstein or Michelangelo or Lincoln. And Steve Jobs must be respected for his ideas and ideals, not his money.
8. I will try night and day, relentlessly, to live up to the ideals of hard work and honesty, plain speaking and charity, economy and good, clean fun that I have always practised around her: children learn far more from what parents do rather than what parents say.
9. I will urge her to love her country firstly because she is so large a part of all mankind, and secondly because of so many great and wonderful things about her culture (I do not want her to be as ignorant of her country as 90% of my supposedly educated pupils are!). I will simultaneously open her eyes to all the badness of her countrymen – from graft to lechery to mindless violence to unsanitary habits to noisy gossip to superstitiousness – so that she can live wisely, avoiding needless trouble and being cheated by everybody from shopkeepers to beggars, and I will also tell her either to dedicate her life to bringing about whatever little improvement she can as one person (which means she will have to get into the few meaningful professions mentioned above, not fritter her life away as a corporate executive selling soap), or to get out of this country and dedicate her life equally sincerely to some kind of work that can, in some very obvious way, benefit all mankind. Not all my ex-students now doing doctoral or post-doctoral scientific work in reputed American universities can claim to be doing that!)

Beyond that, I never allow myself to forget that, if I am to remain true to my ideals, even as a very small man, I must do my own work as earnestly and interestingly and convincingly as I can. If as a teacher I can persuade even a hundred pupils in my whole working life to be a little different, a little better than the common herd, perhaps the ripple effect might spread and affect a few thousand in turn: and thus make the world and my country a better place to live in for my daughter, even if very very slightly. That is what I am continuing to do here and at my orkut community. I know that hoping for anything more is a pipe dream. But it has been said that nothing done lovingly and worshipfully in this world ever goes in vain. Perhaps I have made life seem more interesting to some old boys and girls, and given them some hope and encouragement that they can make a difference themselves, and even helped them to find a sense of direction and purpose? If some of them know I have never worked for money alone, and understand what else I do it for, my life will not have gone wholly waste. What more can I do for my daughter? And what more can I do for my country than leave behind a daughter who is a good and worthwhile human being, who does not believe that she is condemned to a life of craven mediocrity?