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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?

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

It hurts me

to see that while so many people as pupils at my tutorials have found me most entertaining, interesting and invigorating company for so many years, so few people feel the urge to read my blog and post comments there - it's supposedly either because they don't have fast Net connections handy, or because they are too busy, or because everything that I write is either too long, or too boring, or too unimportant ... though I write short and long posts on such a very wide diversity of issues, from religion to careers, from Harry Potter to Tagore, from comments on pornography to my own fiction and favourite poetry! Is it something that I am doing wrong, or just that most people habitually shy away from anything that taxes their brains by forcing them to think, to get out of their cramped mental ruts? It is also a fact that millions visit the blogs of celebrities - whether they are writing utter crap, or saying things that I keep saying myself (like Tom Cruise telling a fan not to write sms text)! This in spite of the fact that all our scriptures and wise men have urged us to remember that what is being said is far more important than who is saying it!