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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?


Suvro Chatterjee said...

Rajdeep, in Japan, who for reasons of his own refuses to post comments directly here, wrote the following:

"There is nothing new you have said here except what you have been harping on for the last ten years. Accountability and knowing that one must perform because there are people who depend on them is going down. And as long as you can boast that your son or daughter got more marks than the ten neighbours around you everything is fine. No one wants to be number one in their field, to excel. In Japan there is even a song with lyrics that you need not be number one. What the song missed out was at least it should have mentioned you need not be number one but you need to be YOURSELF!! Doing good to others is passe. And doing something because you love doing it is foolhardiness. You will always be asked what benefit that will give you. Well, if you say that nothing except that it gives you the greatest pleasure in the world may be playing music, they will think you are a lunatic. The word lunatic is difficult to understand even now but soon with better technology I am sure it will become amply clearer. All such people will be hoarded and sent to the moon (luna)! When I was in class ten I was asked what I wanted to study. I had replied English literature and hence humanities. People asked me but why? What are the prospects? What will you eat? Well, Suvro da can be a good example of what he eats! Tell them! Or should I? The same things you do: rice, rotis, vegetables and a bit of fish and meat! I never heard of people studying humanities trying to chew stones or eating a bear alive! And I agree, whatever comes your way, if it is good it is all your credit (though that can not be so), and if it is bad then someone else is to blame for it! That is where we learn how NOT to take resposibility. WE do not take responsibility for what we say! What today's parents need as entertainment is to boast about their children. That is entertainment for them is what I believe. It does NOT matter what kind of human beings they are making themselves into. What matters is that they can chatter about their kids cleverness at beating others in front of others."

I shall add nothing to that except own up to the 'accusation' made in the first line. Guilty as accused, and NOT ashamed of it! I have been saying these things all my life, and will go on saying the same things till the end, in the hope that a few people will begin to think rightly again. As I have said before on this blog, if I can influence a hundred people in my lifetime, I shall consider my life well lived.

Sudipto pondering said...

A very good and useful post, Sir. Not just for me, but for every youngster who wants to lead a good and happy life; and for all those who are just about to become parents, or very recently have become so. Perhaps not so for the already 'grown-up' ones: I believe most of them are beyond repair now!

Not only does this post say that a good living essentially incorporates some basic tenets, it also emphasises that to live a good life, we first need to know what makes a life bad! Now that you have mentioned individualism, I must say how many of my own classmates say that they want to become successful (and then comes the twist!) as engineers. Strange! I haven't ever heard any newspaper or magazine state that Mr. So-and-so is a 'successful' mechanical engineer! The conclusion is that today's generation is quite confused: while they can't dare or dream to be really different from the herd, they don't like to accept the fact that no person can be really successful as just another engineer in some MNC. And the situation, I believe, is more sad than deserving of outright criticism: these youngsters have picked up such foolish ideas from people they have grown up seeing day in and day out, their parents and relatives, and perhaps some of their own contemporaries. I think, this blindness towards the truth of life is a result of bad and poor parenting.

USA! I totally agree with you on that point. A country whose youngsters can barely tell where India is-- in Africa or Asia (and I believe the normal American is even poorer in GK than the normal Indian!)-- can never be called as a model country, in whose steps we can follow. As a commentator in a TT supplementary once noted: if Bush can rule a country with that brain of his, what more can we expect from his country!

Now I'll get each of my thinking friends to read this: it maybe the most useful thing they'll ever read on being better humans, and leading a good life. So thanks a lot for this post.

Joydeep said...

Wonderful post, Sir. I have nothing much to say. Instead, I shall persuade a few of my thoughtful and responsible friends to read your essay; I sincerely hope that your ideas be imbibed by many so that they might lose their illusions regarding "pseudo-living" and start afresh to lead a better life.


Jonak said...

Hello Sir and Everybody,
It is such a strange feeling entering a blog space for the first time.
It’s like tip toeing in a room full of people seating, from the back entrance. I can see Suvroda standing there across the room and giving his discourse – loud, strong and clear. I see the rest of the people who have been giving comments from there back – I do not know who most of them are as it is very difficult to identify somebody only by their first name, especially when it can be anybody from the 20 odd batches (I may be wrong on the exact number) that his students come from.
I know as soon as I will open my mouth to speak, everybody will turn back and that is a very unnerving feeling, at least for the first time; but this time my urge to speak is stronger than the hesitation that has stopped me till now.

I strongly support most of the issues that Suvroda had written in this and a few of his earlier blogs, because I have very strong and similar views and have had long discussions on these topics with a few like minded friends of mine.

Living in Delhi for the last 8 years now I have been disgusted, frustrated, angry and sad by the behavior and attitude of the so called ‘educated and cultured’ crowd that I am exposed to every day. I very strongly feel that the people I once met in the interior villages of Sunderbans on a project trip about were far more educated than most of these people, including myself.
Most of these people given a half chance will cross a line to get ahead first, even if it means crossing elderly people, will drive on the road as if no body else matters and to overtake everybody and reach first is the only rule of driving, will retort back with utmost vengeance to anybody who have outdone them in these very things that they themselves do. A lot of these people will unflinchingly litter cups or packets on the road, although will be gaga about ‘how clean the places are kept’ while talking about their last trip to the States or Europe.
It is not very difficult to guess what sort of up bringing that these people will give to their children.
I can go on endlessly on the attitudes and behaviour of these people but that will be a mere repetition of what I am sure a lot of people feel.
What I am more intrigued is to why have these people evolved to be so in spite of having gone through schooling, college and higher studies.
And there lies the big issue – there is something major wrong and misdirected about the education system we go through at a very basic level.
I feel what has evolved as ‘education’ is merely a process of churning out individuals with a tag of a profession on him with which he or she can get himself a job, and is a far cry from what will make a person to be an knowledgeable, sensitive, wise, honest and warm human being.
The so called ‘education’ process now begins at a ridiculously early age of 5 or even 4 years.
The school and the parents together portray the scenario that the world is a battlefield with only one winner and everybody else is a loser. The winner will take it all and the losers will be left without any choices in their lives. Not only is winning important, telling everybody that you have won is even more important.
At the end of it, schools (for most parents) are merely meant to be bodies in which children are taught all the tools to get through any professional examination that will give them the ticket to ‘good job’, preferably with a big multinational, which will give them ‘the good life’ and all the goodies that come along with it.

Hence in this process, for twelve years he or she is forced to understand that
- Learning is not supposed to be enjoyable, but a ‘have-to-do’ for all the above mentioned reasons
- To get higher marks than your friend is a very important thing, much more than the friendship
- Discussions and sharing your work with other students is a no-no lest they will copy and benefit from you in the examinations
- Do not ask too many questions to try to understand anything – you will understand it all when you grow up; to be able to memorize and write the correct answer in examinations is all that matters for now
- You are supposed to be good at everything, the more the better
- Attitudes and habits such as cleanliness, honesty, politeness an courtesy are terms confined to the texts of the ‘Moral Science’ books and of no relevance in the actual world – neither at school or in the outside world
- Pace, attitude, smirk, not to smile and to be rude is cool; slow, humility, smile, laugh, politeness is passé, not cool enough and signs of weakness
And so on and so forth…

With such systems for the foundation, isn’t it but natural that you will get adults who find life mostly boring only, see their success only through the other’s eyes and suffer from a big inferiority complex (which have been built through the years of being told by their parents and teachers that they are good for nothing and hence failures) which they try to cover by being ‘successful’ through money and fame, and tell the world that he or she is not a failure, and when they have kids will make the kids go through the same treatment that they went through.
We can to a certain extent change the attitudes of the grown ups, but for a warm, joyful, and more humane world we have to change the way we bring the next generation up.

Jonak Das,

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Delightful to hear from you after such a long hiatus, Jonak! And many thanks for such a nice, coherent, thoughtful post. I should be very glad to have your email i.d., so we can talk more directly and privately (mine is given on top of the blog itself). This blog is wide open to everybody - though, admittedly, the largest fraction of commentators come from my own ex-students, spread over a time-span of 27 years. All I insist upon (and in your case I am quite satisfied) is that people write correct English and no sms, and observe the minimum requirements of courtesy and decency. Moreover, when they criticise anything I write, it must not only be based on facts but also be guided by reason, not blind prejudice, religious, scientific or personal. And everyone (myself included) must be willing to stand corrected if mistakes or inconsistencies are pointed out!