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Thursday, March 29, 2007

Good career for a good life

As I have told hundreds of young people thousands of times, a career (or ‘calling’) is something much greater than a profession, and one needs a good career to live a good life. A job or profession is what one does through all (or a very large part) of one’s adult life in order to make a living. But a career is not just making a living – not even if it is a luxurious living – it means enjoying life to the full. But since work occupies a very large part of one’s life, it is absolutely vital that one enjoys one’s work (and that means one must choose one’s life’s work very very carefully. That is why I like Google’s slogan so much – 'your work must be challenging and the challenge must be fun!'). The whole problem with most adults (my age as well as much younger and older) is that they are stuck six days a week, perhaps 48 weeks a year for thirty five years or more, in dry, dull, dead-end jobs, jobs that they were never fitted for, they never wanted, and can’t see any way to get out of! The pity of it all is that, often despite knowing lots of wonderful examples to the contrary, they keep telling youngsters that they have no choice, they mustn’t dare to make a choice, they must all end up equally bored and frustrated by the time they are middle-aged.

Now pause and reflect. Everybody doesn’t follow the herd into soul-drying careers. We all know that. That’s not how people become actors, writers, inventors, statesmen, entrepreneurs – or even great doctors and teachers and judges and soldiers. Lots of people have indeed pursued their dreams, often against great opposition and at great personal cost, and lots of them have eventually achieved awesome success, in terms of fame, wealth as well as (and above all-) self-satisfaction: in fact, they are the only people who are ever really ‘successful’. All around us, people are still doing that: look at Sachin and J.K. Rowling and the founders of Google (I have deliberately chosen super-successes with humble/middle class beginnings. If anybody, including your parents or yourself, tells you that ‘they’re different’, remind yourself that they were no different from you except in one crucial thing – they had dreams, and the courage and patience to pursue those dreams).

Also consider this: if mere money-making (and then shopping around lifelong with that money to clutter up your houses and impressing neighbours and relatives with that money) were the sole purpose of all education and professional work, a) why do most of us settle for jobs with basically piffling pay, and b) why do those who have already made such giant fortunes that they could not spend it all even if they lived at the very heights of imaginable luxury (like, say, Bill Gates) go on working furiously for years and decades still? – could it be because they have discovered what I have discovered too: that if it is enjoyable, then nothing can be more life-giving, life-stretching, life-ennobling, than good work? Is that why so many sages have said ‘work is worship’? And a third question, c) why is it that so many people have enjoyed life so much pursuing careers where there was never any chance of making much money: the Florence Nightingale type? Do they belong to a different species? Isn’t it odd that these are precisely the sort of people who are revered as ‘great’?

I myself haven’t done too badly by practicing what I preach. I am not a billionaire, nor known all over the world. But I make an upper-middle class living, and if you combine that with the other (very precious though non-material) benefits that I have gained from living this way – freedom, safety, domestic peace and comfort, time for the kinds of fun I like, the happy and grateful memories of lots of ex-students, and above all, enjoying every moment of what I do – you will all be compelled to agree that I haven’t done badly, especially in comparison with people of my age-group and income bracket, such as most doctors, engineers, bank managers or bureaucrats. If I want to become richer or more famous, I’d only like to be that way as a teacher: that’s what I have been since I was 17, and that’s how I’d like the story to end. So I, for one, can safely claim that I haven’t gone wrong by listening to my heart! Why should you?

To come to what I have been driving at all along, then. This post was triggered by something I have been reading in the papers lately. Now that India’s economy is booming (in a certain sense, at least), an increasing number of IIT and/or IIM graduates are chucking up big-pay jobs from very big companies Indian and foreign to ‘do their own thing’. See, for instance, page 5 of The Telegraph, March 28. They are the new breed of entrepreneurs, following in the footsteps of what only the sahibs dared to do once upon a time (the Edison and Brunel and Nobel type) but the Mittals and Premjis and Narayan Murthys have shown to be achievable by Indians too. They are setting up their own firms right and left, opening up new markets, launching new products – everything from idli franchises to tutorials to multimedia-designing outfits – and they are dreaming of making it big, really big, in the Indian as well as global market in ten or twenty years time. I know a bit of history, so I feel a great pity to think that the IITs and IIMs were set up precisely to create educated entrepreneurs, job-givers and not job-seekers. Our status/security/ease-hunting middle class have uniformly abused them, at great cost to the nation, for 50-odd years! No matter: it’s better late than never. Perhaps there are among my own old boys and girls – now pursuing technical or commercial courses in college, or just beginning their working lives – who might be dreaming right now of doing great things instead of becoming fat and lazy pen-pushers or glorified mechanics? Maybe some of them will be the top bosses of giant new MNCs 20 years from now! I wanted to say ‘good luck’ to them, and to tell them that they MUST pursue their dreams no matter what. And I would like to add one more thing which might not be unimportant. When you folks are looking for your first ‘angels’ (or ‘venture capitalists’ – people who would want to risk their hard earned savings by investing in fledgling companies with big dreams), think of me. Vinod Khosla became a billionaire investing in giants like SUN Microsystems at startup-time. Nothing would please me more than to see that a couple of companies started up by my own ex-students, in which I invested a few lakhs, have made me both rich and famous in old age! - and remember, boys and girls, it's not the boys who got the most marks in school who usually become the superstars in later life, but the bravest, cleverest, most industrious and ambitious ones!

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

My views on religion (a summary to begin with!)

Some members have asked at my orkut community why I have said I am 'spiritual but not religious' yet also claimed that religion is one of my passions. To clear up that confusion (and also as my first contribution to the community I have joined - Universal Religion), here is a summary of my views on this subject:
1. One cannot discuss whether or not religion has failed man without first clarifying what we mean by religion.

2. Since ancient times religion in various forms has tried to give men support and strength to fight the battles of life, and to look forward to a better life, in the 'next' world if not the present world. By encouraging music and the other fine arts, as well as collective rituals and festivals, it has also tried to make us more cultured, more sociable, and our lives more colourful and interesting.

3. Every religion tries to make us better human beings by insisting that we practise various virtues like honesty, humility, charity and discipline in everyday life, and aim at non-material goals, such as justice and love.

4. That is the essence of religion, not particular sets of rituals and superstitions and mindless traditions, not even the question of the existence and the ‘true’ form of God! Recall that there have been great religions (like Jainism and Buddhism) which forbade or avoided any discussion of God, other philosophies (like sankhya in Hinduism) have explicitly denied the existence of God, while yet others made tolerance and reverence for all religions and great teachers an essential part of their practice, and many religious-reform movements have repeatedly tried to cleanse religious practice of all its accumulated silliness and dross.

5. Our opponents will argue that religion has taught us to be superstitious, tradition-bound, obsessed with rituals, and cruel and violent towards those who do not share our beliefs. They will also say that in this scientific age only stupid or ignorant people believe in religion. But the facts of history as well as current events prove otherwise. Many great scientists, like Newton, Pasteur and Einstein have believed deeply in God, our one-time Union Home Minister Murli Manohar Joshi was a professor of physics. Not only evil men but some of the noblest men ever born were deeply religious, like the artist Michelangelo, the poet Tagore, the statesman Lincoln. Even in this scientific age, many learned and clever people go to the Pope, Sai Baba or the Dalai Lama for spiritual help and wisdom. Much cruelty and violence has indeed been practised in the name of religion, but so has a great deal of good work been done for suffering humanity – from the founding of the Red Cross to Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity and the work of the Bharat Sevashram Sangh.

6. I believe therefore that it is both wrong and unfair to blame religion for all the evil in this world. Most men are born with a lot of evil inside them, such as greed, stupidity, jealousy, vanity, sloth and bloodlust, and all religions (like science) have tried for thousands of years to remove or at least subdue these evils, so that the world becomes a better place to live in. We often forget that it is because of religious influence of one kind or the other that many ancient cruel practices have been abandoned – such as torture of prisoners. True, to a very large extent religion has failed to civilise man (so has science – it has brought our species close to self-destruction through pollution and nuclear war!). But is this the fault of religion? Wouldn’t it be truer to say that man has failed religion – that the evils deeply rooted in him have proved too powerful for religion to overcome?

7. I also believe that religion does not make men bad. History tells us that though there have been people who have practised horrible tyranny and injustice in the name of religion, many others have done the same though they were not religious men – look at Timur the Lame, Chenghiz Khan, Hitler and Stalin! Bad men use religion as another convenient excuse to practise evil – don’t blame religion for it!

8. This will bear repetition: whether religion is of benefit or harm to us depends on what we understand by religion. Too many people who consider themselves religious are in fact so narrow-minded and hardhearted that they understand nothing about the essence of religion – to them it is nothing more than practising mindless rituals, believing in silly myths and quarrelling over whose rituals and myths are better! It is these people that make trouble and give religion a bad name. It has been said of one such man that ‘he had enough religion to hate, but not enough to love his fellow-man!’ It is such people that have failed religion, not religion that has failed mankind.

Last word:

It is foolish to think that man can ever do without religion. The ancient sages defined religion as that which binds men to each other, to the earth, and to God; while Einstein said in the 20th century that religion without science is lame, science without religion is blind. But the sooner we get the real message of the ancient sages right the better; true religion lies in practising self-control and good virtues, and it is learnt only in the company of people who are truly great in heart and mind. There is nothing new in all this: but people keep on refusing to listen! Remembering the crusades and the recurrent communal riots in our country, I must say that if most people will use religion that way, it is better to crush and ban all religions from public life. Yet I am hopeful: that religion has failed in its mission so far does not mean that it will continue to do so forever. I believe that, as a result of currently ongoing reforms, all the religions of the world will eventually find common ground, as Swami Vivekananda hoped, and someday all human beings will become nicer people by practising a genuine and universal religion, with which science and good folks will have no quarrels.

Some people, I humbly suggest, would benefit hugely from reading a few good books on the subject. I could name many, but for the present I'll name just one - Conversations with God, by Neale Donald Walsche.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

More on the lonely mind

I wrote the following 'story' when I was 20. I wonder what those who are around 20 now would think about it!

Intermission
If you sit up late at night with a full belly trying to usher in a drowsy stupor which your mind is still too wakeful to let advance much further, you can half-heartedly struggle to fall asleep – and with a hectic day behind and another busy one before you, you might quite possibly succeed. Sans those prerequisites, however, with a mind that has nothing palpable to occupy itself with and is reluctant to find one, that half-heartedness would be as good as a positive disinclination to slumberous pursuits. You have, then, long hours of waking in store for you: hours that will prove as tedious as they are enthralling, as infernally fast as damnably slow, while from within your heavy eyes, a reasoning mind tottering on the brink of an exotically aesthetic subconscious tries to harmonise observation and philosophisation with a foreign slowness.

Provided you are not a particularly early-to-bed buff but have made falling asleep with just about a couple of hours for the day to close its account a comfortably regular habit, you’ll find that the fabled midnight isn’t all that far away – in fact, it’ll probably be the first time you look at your watch when you find the hands super-imposed: your thoughts were still wandering, you were still undecided, not yet settled down, so to speak. You are not sure I am not a false philosopher, a bungling amateur as it were, if I must bring the base, earthy reality of chronometry into this ?...No fear, my dear fellow; you can take it from me that an irregular if repeated contemplation of the hour-marker as you course along in the enveloping darkness is, if anything, a subtle accessory to forming a placid chain of thought – maintaining an unambiguous contact with the reality of the passing present, if you please.

Enveloping darkness, I said.Turn off the lights, throw open your windows, stretch back in a deliciously uncomfortable position on your chair, put up your feet on the table and succumb, if you may, to the charms of tobacco and the blushful wares of Bacchus. Let go of the last vestiges of conscious rationalisation, let the forgotten being deep within your soul escape from its bondage and look at what you think is the ‘real’ you.And listen.

A crystal-clear indigo sky lit by the remorseless, implacable glare of celestial arc lamps disconcerts me with its immense pettiness by the apparent similarity to some grotesque man-made machine: though admittedly, there have been such nights which conjured up in the imagination the identity of a divine cloak studded with immortal fire – and thereby brought me the closest I’ve come to sincerity of religion.Quite on the contrary ….but somehow, vaguely, disturbingly similar, have been nights when the moon struggled with torn bits of cloud to compete with the human lighting of the streets, which seemed to transform the ethereality of Time almost into something you could touch. And so you take it all in: the sky as you find it, the breeze whispering through acquiescent reeds; the ceaseless chirp of crickets you’d notice only by its absence; truck tyres burning on the distant highway; dogs barking, frightened by the ominous monotony, rising and dying away… a drunk scraping along, the night watchman trying to keep himself awake, someone snoring in the next room…. And your steady breathing, your own heart unconcernedly, steadily, wretchedly beating away. Insects whir and buzz, something rustles in the courtyard; a firefly flits around the room, drowning your whole entity in the unfathomable deadly magic of an unearthly green point.

Perhaps enchantment is cliché, but the physical fact is as it has always been: there’s no more fight left in you, your Being has fallen; languor – bodily as much as psychological – is total; you’re rendered willfully helpless on the imperceptible motion of the wheel of Eternity. You can almost hear the dew caressing the sensual Night as she curls up, contentedly, like a kitten. Just as the stark naked hopeless aimlessness of existence in a vast void roars in your ears you also feel your mind trying to clasp the slippery evanescence of a Great Justification. And then, also, in the wee small hours of the morning, when a cool, fresh breath of air kisses your fevered brow, when you have nothing more to reflect upon, nothing to condemn, nothing to declaim or regret, when you have no more prayers to say, no more smiling faces to recall and no more tears to shed, you feel lonelier, smaller, more alien than ever before. But there is no complaint, no bitterness, no self-pity; as with tousled hair and red-rimmed eyes you strain to catch the first glimpse of the eternally renewed miracle of light and life, you’re expecting more of everything than you’ve ever dreamt of doing, somehow assured that you will not be disappointed.

The brow of the horizon greys with a frown as the sun rudely, flippantly shatters its reverie, even as an embarrassed blush spreads with the self-admission that that very same reverie had become acutely – it had seemed for a moment inescapably – uncomfortable. Be that as it may, the world has had aeons of practice and goes about the business of general awakening with some shade of sensibility. But you, whose total experience spans an insignificant handful of years, whose flimsy materialistic armour has been mockingly puffed aside by this one dreadful night of disparaging revelations, look sluggishly out at a yawning gulf of Sisyphean futility waiting for you: you have no more foolish dreams left to fall back upon, or, paradoxically perhaps, no time for them. You aren’t going to turn up with a healthy appetite for breakfast or a general aura of bon vivant about you, that’s a dead cert, but then, it’s your fault that you didn’t take a dose of sleeping pills last night in the first place.

Oh well, you tell yourself, hang it all and get down to the sweet, comfortable, regular business of life. Fine. Only, as you travel in whatever manner you choose along the disgustingly familiar track to your everyday destination a very incongruous thought strikes you; it seems you have seen through the motivation behind the apparently wanton excesses of popular festival. You laugh out hoarsely, startling the automaton behind the steering wheel.

The day won’t be a particularly fruitful one on any count. You will lose a client, make a wrong diagnosis or be taken to task by or by your professor. And that again will seem strange by its failure to leave any mark on your ‘normal’ self. Colleagues will find your conversation lifeless, just as you find theirs banal. You come awake just about lunchtime, precisely as you discover other heads beginning to nod! Which, by the way, doesn’t help much to remove your listless apathy.

You make artful excuses to get off sooner than usual, go out of your way to engage in physical exertion or social intercourse with abortive gusto, and finally end up alone in your room with a book in your lap and your eyes on the ceiling. Having visually exhausted your immediate surroundings of possible objects of intellectual occupation within the better part of an hour, you look out to see a sickly pallor of smog descending upon the city, unkempt smokestacks marking the point where the celestial orb took inglorious leave. Great black flights of winged creatures head determinedly homewards. Night comes swiftly, silently in a vain attempt to take man’s luminous contrivances by surprise. You sigh, throw down the book, start cursing, decide against it and go out.

This evening they’ll be surprised by your gay, charming, sudden vivacity; you alone know that you are making amends for the Creator’s lack of imagination. You have won a private battle, let me tell you if you didn’t wildly hit out at the last miserable guest who came up for an ebullient handshake. Or again, perhaps you lost the last chance of salvation.

As you hear the clock wearily striking again somewhere, it hits you. That hollow feeling in your stomach, the stale, bitter taste of bile clutching at your throat …and as you wildly look about for what, at this moment, you desire most of all, the gnome with glinting, lecherous eyes is walking down the endless tunnel through your mind, his hobnailed boots thudding hollowly; his hunched, wrinkled figure casts no shadow. And then you go to dinner…

You forgot the chemist’s this evening.

Suvro Chatterjee
UG 2nd year (1983).

Friday, March 16, 2007

Net junkies?

‘Get a life’ said a very old friend who was briefly in my orkut community ‘The Good Life!’, and drew everybody’s attention to the recent news item that one of the IITs has imposed a curfew on netsurfing time, the authorities having felt that students are rapidly becoming net-junkies and losing out on their social life – and, I suppose, on study time and health as well – which, if true, would of course be a very serious matter. I should like to examine the issue in detail and in a calm, open-eyed, rational manner: in this country we have a habit of jumping to conclusions and taking hasty action which too often boomerangs on us, or fails us badly.

Firstly – as I have heard from my dad’s generation, seen from my own college days, and my own old boys and girls in college today keep telling me – much of that happy ‘social life’ in college has always been a myth or a chimera for most young people. Most of them find (or keep) very few true friends in college: most of them remain unhappy members of what a wise man has dubbed ‘the lonely crowd’, afraid of peer pressure to conform, desperately trying to be ‘in’, often against their own tastes and wishes, and becoming warped in the process, getting drawn into all kinds of seriously-bad habits which take a very heavy toll a few years down the line, and wasting an enormous amount of time in the process. What is called ‘a life’, or ‘enjoyment’ or ‘fun’ or whatever is just that – waste of many valuable years in bad living. Just as bad as what we elders often do at our parties, gorging and drinking away and leering at one another’s wives and daughters, rarely having five straight minutes of informed and intelligent conversation!

If the above is accepted to be by and large true, I shall proceed to make my second point: consider the typical college-goer who doesn’t play outdoor games much, does not have special circles of friends with common interests (like watching movies, making music, or going trekking) and cannot or won’t socialize at the canteen or nearby pub. For him or her, the Net is a godsend! Now the Net can be abused like anything else – you can waste all your time watching porn or forwarding silly jokes or playing juvenile games or scribbling crap scrap – and those who are by nature inclined to such abuse will always find a way of doing it, whether the college bosses facilitate things or not. I have the more refined and serious-minded youngsters in mind, especially those who, being by nature quiet and shy and finicky about things like bad language and noise and rude jokes, cannot socialize very well face to face. The privacy and relative impersonality of a net chat room (you don’t have to see the person you are chatting with, and he or she cannot directly yell at you, and you can log out or cut out anyone you don’t like without hassles…), especially if one is using a computer in one’s own room, offers lots of nice and clever youngsters to ‘get a life’ the only way they can. It must NOT be assumed that they are losing out on life: indeed, looking at the animated discussion board at my orkut community, it seems to be quite the contrary situation! And I know for a fact that many of these boys and girls are simultaneously pursuing other good hobbies and doing well at their studies too. Nobody needs to become a net-junkie any more than he needs to become a glutton or a drunk or a TV-addict: let’s not blame the net instead of ourselves for our failings!

Think about it, and get back to me. I hope my friend's son reads this too. Meanwhile, happy surfing, everybody – just don’t overdo it. Our religion says sarvam atyantam garhitam: all excess is bad!

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Here's a teaser!

Some folks have advised me to keep my posts short - then readers will respond more easily (I know, of course, that that's not true, seeing that hardly anybody has yet responded to those of my posts which are very short!), and that I should write something about love. So I'll combine both suggestions with a short teaser about love here, quoting the poet:

"Love at first sight, some say,
Misnaming the helplessness of twinn'd souls
'gainst the huge tug of procreation!"
Let's see how many responses this one fetches, and of what quality, within 48 hours!

Friday, March 09, 2007

Fafaia, by Rupert Brooke

I have loved this poem since I was a boy. Reading it might perhaps help all my interlocutors here and at my orkut site/community to realise a little better the haunting loneliness that I keep trying to soothe - as all men and women would try, once they acknowledged it and came to terms with it, instead of forever trying to hide or run away from it - by befriending as many fellow human beings I can before my little time on this earth is over (and what does it matter whether that happens tonight or forty years hence: it will be all too soon anyway!)


Stars that seem so close and bright,

Watched by lovers through the night,

Swim in emptiness, men say,

Many a mile and year away.


And yonder star that burns so white,

May have died to dust and night,

Ten, or maybe, fifteen year,

Before it shines upon my dear.


Oh! often among men below,

Heart cries out to heart, I know,

And one is dust a many years,

Child, before the other hears.


Heart from heart is all as far,

Fafaia, as star from star.


Rupert Brooke, Saanapu, November 1913

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

An appeal...

I am getting tired of seeing that though many people do visit my blog, no one, apparently, can think of anything to say about anything in it. Don't you see - I have no other way of knowing whether I'm wasting my time here or not! Do please write in with your views/comments/criticisms/requests. If you think all this stuff is boring/useless, I'd be glad if you told me so; I can at least take this blog off the Net (six such comments would do the trick)! If you are facing any technical trouble with posting comments, do let me know about that, too, with an email at suvro.chatterjee@gmail.com

The worship of the wealthy

The following was written in 1915. Since then, the whole titanic socialist experiment, which spanned the better part of the 20th century, has failed spectacularly, at unspeakable cost to humanity (by the way, Chesterton was no socialist, and he hated Soviet-style communists). Capitalism of a particularly rapacious, shameless and thoughtless variety is currently triumphant again. And it doesn't augur well either for society or for the natural environment! How does this essay sound in 2007?

The Worship of the wealthyBy G. K. Chesterton

There has crept, I notice, into our literature and journalism a new way of flattering the wealthy and the great. In more straightforward times flattery itself was more straight-forward; falsehood itself was more true. A poor man wishing to please a rich man simply said that he was the wisest, bravest, tallest, strongest, most benevolent and most beautiful of mankind; and as even the rich man probably knew that he wasn't that, the thing did the less harm. When courtiers sang the praises of a King they attributed to him things that were entirely improbable, as that he resembled the sun at noonday, that they had to shade their eyes when he entered the room, that his people could not breathe without him, or that he had with his single sword conquered Europe, Asia, Africa, and America. The safety of this method was its artificiality; between the King and his public image there was really no relation. But the moderns have invented a much subtler and more poisonous kind of eulogy. The modern method is to take the prince or rich man, to give a credible picture of his type of personality, as that he is business-like, or a sportsman, or fond of art, or convivial, or reserved; and then enormously exaggerate the value and importance of these natural qualities. Those who praise Mr. Carnegie do not say that he is as wise as Solomon and as brave as Mars; I wish they did. It would be the next most honest thing to giving their real reason for praising him, which is simply that he has money. The journalists who write about Mr. Pierpont Morgan do not say that he is as beautiful as Apollo; I wish they did. What they do is to take the rich man's superficial life and manner, clothes, hobbies, love of cats, dislike of doctors, or what not; and then with the assistance of this realism make the man out to be a prophet and a saviour of his kind, whereas he is merely a private and stupid man who happens to like cats or to dislike doctors. The old flatterer took for granted that the King was an ordinary man, and set to work to make him out extraordinary. The newer and cleverer flatterer takes for granted that he is extraordinary, and that therefore even ordinary things about him will be of interest.

I have noticed one very amusing way in which this is done. I notice the method applied to about six of the wealthiest men in England in a book of interviews published by an able and well-known journalist. The flatterer contrives to combine strict truth of fact with a vast atmosphere of awe and mystery by the simple operation of dealing almost entirely in negatives. Suppose you are writing a sympathetic study of Mr. Pierpont Morgan. Perhaps there is not much to say about what he does think, or like, or admire; but you can suggest whole vistas of his taste and philosophy by talking a great deal about what he does not think, or like, or admire. You say of him--"But little attracted to the most recent schools of German philosophy, he stands almost as resolutely aloof from the tendencies of transcendental Pantheism as from the narrower ecstasies of Neo-Catholicism." Or suppose I am called upon to praise the charwoman who has just come into my house, and who certainly deserves it much more. I say--"It would be a mistake to class Mrs. Higgs among the followers of Loisy; her position is in many ways different; nor is she wholly to be identified with the concrete Hebraism of Harnack." It is a splendid method, as it gives the flatterer an opportunity of talking about something else besides the subject of the flattery, and it gives the subject of the flattery a rich, if somewhat bewildered, mental glow, as of one who has somehow gone through agonies of philosophical choice of which he was previously unaware. It is a splendid method; but I wish it were applied sometimes to charwomen rather than only to millionaires.

There is another way of flattering important people which has become very common, I notice, among writers in the newspapers and elsewhere. It consists in applying to them the phrases "simple," or "quiet," or "modest," without any sort of meaning or relation to the person to whom they are applied. To be simple is the best thing in the world; to be modest is the next best thing. I am not so sure about being quiet. I am rather inclined to think that really modest people make a great deal of noise. It is quite self-evident that really simple people make a great deal of noise. But simplicity and modesty, at least, are very rare and royal human virtues, not to be lightly talked about. Few human beings, and at rare intervals, have really risen into being modest; not one man in ten or in twenty has by long wars become simple, as an actual old soldier does by long wars become simple. These virtues are not things to fling about as mere flattery; many prophets and righteous men have desired to see these things and have not seen them. But in the description of the births, lives, and deaths of very luxurious men they are used incessantly and quite without thought. If a journalist has to describe a great politician or financier (the things are substantially the same) entering a room or walking down a thoroughfare, he always says, "Mr. Midas was quietly dressed in a black frock coat, a white waistcoat, and light grey trousers, with a plain green tie and simple flower in his button-hole." As if any one would expect him to have a crimson frock coat or spangled trousers. As if any one would expect him to have a burning Catherine wheel in his button-hole.

But this process, which is absurd enough when applied to the ordinary and external lives of worldly people, becomes perfectly intolerable when it is applied, as it always is applied, to the one episode which is serious even in the lives of politicians. I mean their death. When we have been sufficiently bored with the account of the simple costume of the millionaire, which is generally about as complicated as any that he could assume without being simply thought mad; when we have been told about the modest home of the millionaire, a home which is generally much too immodest to be called a home at all; when we have followed him through all these unmeaning eulogies, we are always asked last of all to admire his quiet funeral. I do not know what else people think a funeral should be except quiet. Yet again and again, over the grave of every one of those sad rich men, for whom one should surely feel, first and last, a speechless pity--over the grave of Beit, over the grave of Whiteley--this sickening nonsense about modesty and simplicity has been poured out. I well remember that when Beit was buried, the papers said that the mourning-coaches contained everybody of importance, that the floral tributes were sumptuous, splendid, intoxicating; but, for all that, it was a simple and quiet funeral. What, in the name of Acheron, did they expect it to be? Did they think there would be human sacrifice--the immolation of Oriental slaves upon the tomb? Did they think that long rows of Oriental dancing-girls would sway hither and thither in an ecstasy of lament? Did they look for the funeral games of Patroclus? I fear they had no such splendid and pagan meaning. I fear they were only using the words "quiet" and "modest" as words to fill up a page--a mere piece of the automatic hypocrisy which does become too common among those who have to write rapidly and often. The word "modest" will soon become like the word "honourable," which is said to be employed by the Japanese before any word that occurs in a polite sentence, as "Put honourable umbrella in honourable umbrella-stand;" or "condescend to clean honourable boots." We shall read in the future that the modest King went out in his modest crown, clad from head to foot in modest gold and attended with his ten thousand modest earls, their swords modestly drawn. No! if we have to pay for splendour let us praise it as splendour, not as simplicity. When next I meet a rich man I intend to walk up to him in the street and address him with Oriental hyperbole. He will probably run away.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Here’s a good read…

A gentleman named Vipin Bucksey contributed the following priceless story to Khushwant’s Singh’s weekly column in The Telegraph, 3rd March 2007. Since the views expressed here about what is wrong with this country accord so perfectly with mine, and are conveyed through excellent black humour, I am reproducing the story here: I hope neither Bucksey nor Singh would mind.

The ant and the grasshopper

Old Version: The ant works hard in the withering heat all summer long, building his house and laying up supplies for winter. The grasshopper thinks the ant is a fool and laughs and dances and plays the summer away. Come winter, the ant is warm and well fed. The grasshopper has no food and shelter, so he dies out in the cold.

Modern Version: The ant works hard in the withering heat all summer long, building his house and laying up supplies for winter. The grasshopper thinks the ant’s a fool and laughs and dances and plays the summer away. Come winter, the shivering grasshopper calls a press conference and demands to know why the ant should be allowed to be warm and well-fed while others are cold and starving. NDTV, BBC and CNN show up to provide pictures of the shivering grasshopper next to a video of the ant in his comfortable home with a table filled with food. The world is stunned by the sharp contrast. How can it be that the poor grasshopper is allowed to suffer so?
Arundhati Roy stages a demonstration in front of the ant’s house. Medha Patkar goes on a fast along with other grasshoppers, demanding that grasshoppers be relocated to warmer climates during winter. Amnesty International and Kofi Annan (UN chief at the time of writing) criticize the Indian government for not upholding the fundamental rights of the grasshopper. The internet is flooded with online petitions seeking support to the grasshopper (many promising Heaven and Everlasting Peace for prompt support, against the wrath of God for non-compliance). Opposition MPs stage a walkout. Left parties call for ‘Bharat bandh’ in West Bengal and Kerala, demanding a judicial enquiry. The CPM in Kerala immediately passes a law preventing ants from working hard in the heat so as to bring about equality of poverty among ants and grasshoppers. Lalu Prasad allocates one free coach to grasshoppers on all Indian Railways trains, aptly named the Grasshopper Rath. Finally, the Judicial Committee drafts the Prevention of Terrorism against Grasshoppers Act (POTAGA), with effect from the beginning of winter. Arjun Singh makes special reservation for grasshoppers in educational institutions and in government services.
The ant is fined for failing to comply with POTAGA and has nothing left to pay his retroactive taxes. His house is confiscated by the government and handed over to the grasshopper in a grand, nationally televised ceremony. Arundhati Roy calls it a ‘triumph of justice’; the CPM calls it the ‘revolutionary resurgence of the downtrodden’. Kofi Annan invites the grasshopper to address the UN general assembly.
Many years later: The ant has migrated to the US and set up a multibillion-dollar company in Silicon Valley. Hundreds of grasshoppers still die of starvation in India despite reservation. As a result of losing a lot of hardworking ants and feeding the grasshoppers, India is still a developing country.
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My comments: I applaud this story despite having a very low opinion of the average capitalist, despite being a Gandhian in my approach to the issue of poverty, despite John Grisham’s The Street Lawyer being one of my most favourite books. My views tally very closely with Tolstoy’s (who gave away a gigantic fortune to his newly-freed serfs and lived a life as simple and hard as Thoreau’s) – ‘he who does not work shall not eat’, remembering that a good surgeon, teacher or software developer works just as much as a rickshaw puller, domestic help or coolie (though I do believe that income differentials should not be as great as they are, and very large inheritances should be outlawed). I’d also like to add that since the honest and clever ants have generally all migrated to greener pastures, India has been left with lazy and incompetent crooks by the tens of millions: many of them are also making considerable fortunes, but most of that money stinks. Such creatures are certainly not going to make India great! Point to reflect: why do the likes of Vinod Khosla, Amartya Sen and Mani Bhowmik have not the slightest intention of coming back and setting up shop in India?