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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:

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.