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Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Travelling once more...

It seems only the other day that I sat down to write about my holiday trip Himachal way, and already another whole year and another grand vacation has come and gone. How fast time flies. All that is sweet in life lies in looking forward to happy things and relishing their memories afterwards in the soft, warm glow of recollection. Thus passes the glory of this world!

This year wasn’t a good one for me – to put it very mildly. Not much about that here: those who know (my wife knows much more than anybody else) don’t need to be told; others don’t need to know. Suffice it to say that unlike most years this time round I wasn’t too sure until only a few days before whether I would be making that long-overdue holiday trip or not. My two old boys Arani and Aakash, both currently working and sharing a flat in Delhi, kept up a barrage of incessant requests, telling me again and again that I was coming over to stay and travel with them in end-December, and it is largely owing to their steady, eager urging that I finally decided to go because it would be churlish to say no.

Subhadip Biswas, my ever-faithful pointman in the capital (what wouldn’t a cabinet minister give to have a secretary as loyal and dependable as he! God grant him a great career; whoever employs him, in whatever capacity, would be lucky indeed), was there to receive me at the railway station for the fourth year in a row; this time so were Arani and Aakash to give me a right royal welcome and ride home. What with Arani’s doting and enormously hospitable parents hovering over us, it was really like being home away from home (only the third time that way in Delhi for me). We lazed around the city a bit, taking in the lights, then pushed off the same evening by an ‘A/c-special’ train to Dehradun. Arriving at about 7 in the morning, we hired a car that made a three-hour trip (part of the road in a hair-raising state of disrepair, thanks to frequent landslides) to drop us off at a lovely and cosy little hotel in a quiet, out of the way hamlet called Chakrata nestling in the Garhwal hills at a height of about 6500 feet, offering a magnificent panorama of a huge range of snowclad Himalayan peaks, including the Yamunotri range. Mercifully, those two days we stayed at Chakrata (and only those two!) were blessed with bright, crisp sunshine, and we had the best suite, so the views we had took our breath away. Being a military cantonment where tourism is definitely not encouraged, Chakrata remains one of those (vanishingly few) hill stations which are still unsullied by the curse of overpopulation and ‘development’ – despite the fact that the local literacy rate is close to 90 per cent! It is located on a thickly wooded hill, in sharp contrast to the moonscape-like terrain of rugged and bare hills all around, so it offered very lovely walks too. The delightful chill in the air gave us the excuse to indulge in a real log fire at night (a first for my daughter), and the service was excellent and the meals were mouth-watering and the conversation as rich as I could ask for, and all of us were in good health, so that’s as close to heaven as one gets, I suppose!

On the third day we drove off to Hardwar via Mussoorie, a long and expensive trip, and the driver was surly and unhelpful, but the scenic views greatly compensated for all that, and the drive down from Mussoorie to Dehradun, followed by the one that takes you through Rajaji (Chilla-) National Park on the way to Hardwar from Hrishikesh, charmed as much as ever, though I was doing it for the fourth time. As in Delhi, it was (surprisingly) hardly cold in Hardwar, and there was disappointingly little water in the Ganga (it was even worse at Lachhmanjhula!), and far too many people, but we got the best possible hotel right on Subhas Ghat, a stone’s throw from the famed Har-ki-pauri – twice before, looking up at the lights while walking along the riverside, my wife and I had sighed to think it would be too costly for the likes of us to afford, so this time, having dared to find out, we were most pleasantly surprised. We moved around quite a bit, of course, but we could have happily lazed around on that balcony, watching the day’s routine scenario unfolding before and below our eyes, from dawn to dusk without a whiff of boredom. Arani had to leave for Delhi a day early, but Aakash kept us company, and vowed that this first visit of his would be a very satisfying memory. I think every one of us thoroughly enjoyed the Ganga aarti ceremony at evenfall, chokingly overcrowded as the ghats were. There was a long midnight wait at Hardwar station for the train that took us to Delhi, and when we arrived at dawn, the drive home in racing autorickshaws through fog so dense you could hardly see the tail lights of the cars ahead of you was enough to satiate my middle-aged appetite for adventure. That day, too, we had an MUV at our disposal, and Subhadip took us around to see some more sights. We took in the National Gandhi Museum, the Red Fort and the Jama Masjid, lunched at Eatopia in the India Habitat Centre, strolled around the lovely Lodhi Gardens (though Arani swore they had been far more lush only a couple of months back), snacked at Chocko-la in Khan Market, and then made a beeline for home; we were falling asleep on our feet! Dinner at Arani’s place was a treat that we could hardly do justice to.

Then it was back to Kolkata. A day’s rest, and my daughter’s birthday quietly celebrated. A very dear old girl, who had come over from the US to get married, very kindly took the trouble to see us off at Howrah station, and embarrassed us by literally shoving a load of lovely gifts into our arms (my best wishes to her and her husband for a long and happy married life). A swift, untroubled trip back home, and again we were received by two favourite old boys – one of whom, Stotra, had been generous enough to keep a watchful eye on my house and garden all the time I was away. And as usual, we were united in feeling that while the trip was much needed and much enjoyed, it was good to be back home!

Those who are interested in photographs might look up the following link (best seen in slideshow mode, with the timer set to 10-15 seconds). I haven’t bothered to upload videos.

Now here are a few observations by way of summing up:

1. The Rajdhani Express is a pale shadow of its former self. I wish we had better trains in the luxury segment, even if they cost more. Faster, more comfortable, quieter, and less filled with newly-rich riffraff. I have always loved trains, but now I’m having trouble coping.
2. There are simply too many people – and crooks, con men and beggars – everywhere these days, metros and holy places included.
3. The sons and daughters of the idle, uncouth, ostentatious super-rich are the same disgusting types everywhere. I wish there were a law against them, like they have laws against stray dogs in some countries.
4. Among the curious sights I saw this time round, sadhus fighting tooth and nail over alms was one of the most remarkable.
5. There used to be an old and long-standing complaint among Bengalis living in Delhi that you can’t get good fish anywhere, unless you shop in Chittaranjan Park. No longer. Arani treated me to some of the most delicious fish I have ever eaten, and I am no great fish-lover, either!
6. A large number of ex-students got together to make this trip particularly heartwarming for me. I often feel blue to think of how little people remember me and what I have done for them in years gone by, but some people might quite possibly envy me: few teachers these days can boast of so many old boys who care, and care so much. My most grateful thanks to them, and blessings. This year’s good experience has gone a long way to help me live down the distressing events that followed my last trip. Those who have dropped out of my life I regret no longer: there are still apparently plenty of others who are only too glad to warm the cockles of my old heart. More power to their elbows. I hope they enjoyed doing everything they did. They can take satisfaction from the knowledge that these year-end trips fill me with new vigour and enthusiasm to cope with the almost-thankless drudgery through the year ahead.

There's just about an hour and a half of 2008 left as I publish this post. I wish every reader a very Happy New Year!

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Parents a decade from now!

A teacher called Charles Sykes has written some wonderful advice for youngsters graduating from high school these days. It gives me nightmares to think they will start becoming parents within a decade from now! He had American kids in mind, but I am sure  it applies equally well to the ‘smart set’ of the same age group in India (some people were passing it off as a spoof on the Net, claiming it was a speech that Bill Gates has recently made. It wasn’t Bill, but that doesn’t take away one whit from the truth and importance of what is being said):
Rule 1:  Life is not fair - get used to it!
Rule 2:   The world won't care about your self-esteem. The world will expect you to accomplish something BEFORE you feel good about yourself.
Rule 3:  You will NOT make $60,000 a year right out of high school. You won't be a vice-president with a car phone until you earn both.
Rule 4:   If you think your teacher is tough, wait till you get a boss.
Rule 5:   Flipping burgers is not beneath your dignity. Your grandparents had a different word for burger flipping: they called it opportunity.
Rule 6: If you mess up, it's not your parents' fault, so don't whine about your mistakes, learn from them.
Rule 7: Before you were born, your parents weren't as boring as they are now. They got that way from paying your bills, cleaning your clothes and listening to you talk about how cool you thought you were. So before you save the rain forest from the parasites of your parents' generation, try delousing the closet in your own room.
Rule 8: Your school may have done away with winners and losers, but life HAS NOT. In some schools, they have abolished failing grades and they'll give you as MANY TIMES as you want to get the right answer. This doesn't bear the slightest resemblance to ANYTHING in real life.
Rule 9: Life is not divided into semesters. You don't get summers off and very few employers are interested in helping you “FIND YOURSELF”. Do that on your own time.
Rule 10: Television is NOT real life. In real life people actually have to leave the coffee shop and go to jobs.
Rule 11: Be nice to nerds. Chances are you'll end up working for one!             
If you agree, pass it on.
If you can read this - Thank a teacher!

Contrast the attitude manifest in the above sermon with the reality about today’s youngsters (again, I don’t see much difference between American kids and their wannabe Indian clones…): watch this sad and shocking video song on youtube: http://in.youtube.com/watch?v=7uSlqI1AVUk
I am thankful to Sion Chowdhury, in his third undergraduate year at Jadavpur University, Dept. of English, for kindly providing me with the above link. Do watch the video: you won't get the point of this blogpost without reflecting upon it!

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Forests, tribals and sombre thoughts

Someone has posted something about our beautiful forests and the tribals who live there on his blog recently which brought a variety of interconnected thoughts flooding into my mind.

1. In connection with the beauty of our natural surroundings: here in India we have some of the most picturesque and spectacular places in the world, but, unlike in ‘advanced’ countries we (by we I specifically mean the educated, rich and powerful – the whole middle class included, politicians, bureaucrats, engineers, doctors, accountants, lawyers, journalists, teachers and all) don’t collectively value and therefore don’t have any serious desire to preserve them; rather, whatever the dread hand of ‘development’ touches is immediately despoiled, polluted and ruined. That applies to all our forests and wildlife; very soon, all the experts sadly say, there will be little of either left: we shall only have forests of shopping malls and multiplexes and housing estates and steel mills and IT-‘parks’ everywhere instead, and I am sure most of us will be perfectly happy. We have become a vast race of philistines: what a wonder that some of us still boast that we have inherited one of the oldest and richest ‘cultures’ of the world! What a wonder that one of the most hauntingly beautiful of Sanskrit poems, Abhignyan Shakuntalam, speaks so eloquently of how deeply humans can love trees. To us, ‘modern’ Indians (unlike, say, to the French, Germans, Japanese and even Americans) that is so backdated, so uncool! It’s neither sms text nor Britney Spears nor quantum mechanics, after all.

2. The plight of the wretched of the earth – our tribals prominently among them – never seems to change, despite all the rhetoric about socialism and welfare, despite all the grand governmental plans, despite all the money supposedly earmarked year after year, decade after decade, despite all the good work done by countless selfless people for their upliftment, despite all the magic formulas chanted night and day by comfortable and secure votaries of the free market. In what I consider one of the twenty greatest books of the 20th century written anywhere in the world, Aranyak (The Forest’s Tale), Bibhuti Bhushan Banerjee spoke with shame and dismay about a very old tribal so poor that he had walked all night through dense jungle to eat a large bowl of rice when the manager-babu of the zamindar’s estate was giving a feast for the likes of him. That was more than eighty years ago. And today, after more than sixty years of ‘development’ as a free country, we hear that the mass of such tribals still live in the same kind of indigence, helplessness and hopelessness. And we the ‘moderns’ are not a whit ashamed to boast of our mobile-revolution, and automobile revolution, and of how many of our whizkids are contributing to the software industry. Cry, the beloved country!

3. Blame it all on illiteracy and the population explosion: that is how the know-it-all ‘intelligentsia’ has been salving its conscience for so long. Well, if those were the only factors responsible (rather than the stupidity, callousness and greed of the most privileged classes), why didn’t we take drastic enough steps early on to ensure that they no longer remained serious issues in 2008? When shall we ever say ‘it’s high time’? Why have we – as a nation – focused so maniacally on only furthering the narrow and selfish interests of the most privileged classes, so that development has come to mean only urban luxuries for those who continue to stay back in India (luxuries that make us and our children ever fatter, ruder, greedier and stupider – not those that make us healthier and wiser, like parks and libraries and good movies and museums, for instance), and opportunities for millions of them to flee permanently to ‘better’ countries?

4. Wildlife will vanish, because they cannot fight back to make a change for the better. Humans, alas, can. I do not find it a cause for wonder that tribals are organizing and rising violently against all the humiliation, deprivation and oppression heaped on them for ages – in the name of development, too (at least the Mughals and the British made no such pretence!), rising all over Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Chattisgarh, Orissa, West Bengal and elsewhere. I find it wonderful, rather, that they are still not rising in large enough numbers, and violently enough, to make a real difference. I also find it sad and futile that they take out their wrath on the least privileged of the privileged classes – ill paid police constables, local level politicos, junior field engineers, very petty bureaucrats and so on. Even killing thousands of suchlike will not change anything in the corridors of power, anything in the mindset of those who make big decisions, those who take away 99 percent of the benefits of ‘development’ every time. The killing fields will only grow bloodier, as the state hits back to wreak blind vengeance on behalf of those who matter: cabinet ministers, tycoons, film stars, cricketers ... and their families. In a democratic country, only "VIPs" really matter (does anybody honestly think that there would have been a tenth of the uproar if the terrorists had attacked a large dharmshala instead of the Taj? Remember, 30,000 plus perished in the Orissa cyclone, and the tsunami of December 2005 killed more than 150,000!) Very many of us non-VIPs and our near and dear ones will perish in the crossfire. Alas, none of us will have the moral right to call ourselves ‘innocent’ victims. Remember, by their definition the British CID was quite justified in calling Kshudiram Bose a ‘terrorist’, because, after all, his bomb killed two ‘innocent’ British civilians, a defenceless woman and a child at that! And if making a prediction like this brands me as an enemy of the people (as defined by Ibsen and Satyajit Ray), so be it. One does not have to sympathize with the 'Maoists' to understand where all the anger is coming from.

5. One last thought. As any social psychologist knows, science itself has a culture and a history: what people choose to study and why depends a very great deal on the social mindset in which they grow up. Perhaps that is precisely the reason why most of our ‘good’ students want to study science, and that too engineering or mathematics or physics, rather than zoology or botany, leave alone history and economics and law and political science and literature and philosophy? Perhaps it’s not just because the first category leads to easy and well-paid jobs quickly, perhaps the more important reason is that in their subconscious they and their parents know that the latter category deals with far more difficult and messy problems which are best avoided? – If that is true, fine, but just how long can we keep running away, how many of us, and how far? Can our 300-million strong middle class migrate en masse to America or Europe when there’s nothing left in India to exploit, and it has grown too dangerous to live in?

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Honesty, our style

A prosperous shopkeeper is asked by his little grandson, 'Grampa, what does honesty mean?'
Grampa chooses his words carefully. 'Suppose a customer overpays me Rs. 100. I should share half of this with my brother, who runs the shop alternately with me. He would never have known if I hadn't told him, but I should. That's honesty.'
'But grampa - what about the customer? He overpaid, didn't you say? Shouldn't you...'
'Don't bother about the customer, boy. That's not our concern. He ought to have been more careful.'
[I got this gem from a little book of witticisms written in Bangla by Tarapada Ray. And I shall be the first to admit that I know a lot of shopkeepers who are not like that!]

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Terror in Mumbai

I am not unaware of or insensitive to significant current events, though I might not often write about them here. In connection with the ongoing violent mess in Mumbai, I have commented at some length on Tanmoy's new blog (link provided in Blogs I often visit): please take a look.

P.S., Dec. 03: Sumitha Kurien has opened a good blog on this subject recently; visit

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Creating a 'knowledge society'!

Sam Pitroda (successful IT enterepreneur based in Chicago, one-time technology mission adviser to PM Rajiv Gandhi, credited with ushering in the ongoing telecom revolution in India, and currently, at Manmohan’s Singh’s behest, head of India’s National Knowledge Commission), has publicly regretted (as reported in The Statesman, 16th November, first page) that India is doing far too little to become a true-blue ‘knowledge economy’ and a leader of the world. And by way of proof, he has held up the following kind of data: that compared to the US and even China, India has pathetically few young people pursuing doctoral and post-doc research programs. He has also suggested a slew of measures to increase those numbers significantly over the next few years.

While having no quarrel with the facts or with Mr. Pitroda’s suggested reforms, I should like my readers (most of whom, I am sure, regard themselves as highly educated or in the process of so becoming) to think about the following posers:

1. Are doctorates very good indicators of who is knowledgeable and who is not any more? Bertrand Russell joked long ago about how American PhD scholars gaped at the erudition of mere master’s degree holders (such as himself) from Britain who came over to lecture them; many of us know that what passes for ‘research’ these days is mere re-dressing and regurgitation of old hat, with very little in the way of major new discoveries and novel ideas thrown in, or quite insignificant additions to the existing corpus of knowledge, no matter what the subject is, from physics to economics to literature (Sir J.J. Thomson got a doctorate for as momentous a discovery as that of the electron: these days people get PhDs for describing a hitherto overlooked step in the reproductive cycle of the hydra, or some slight tweak in game theory, or suggesting the 164th risk-factor for heart attacks, or that Shakespeare may have had gay leanings). And I hear from my college-going ex-students all the time how unintelligent, boring and utterly uninformed outside the narrow area of her specialisation the average PhD lecturer is these days: so much so that a hotshot math prof cannot help out her own 14 year old daughter with her geography or chemistry or English lessons, and has to look around desperately for tutors to make up for her shortcomings!... and haven’t some of the cleverest men of the 20th century been non-doctorates? (forget about titans like Ramanujan and Bill Gates; even Mr. Pitroda’s doctorate, I think, was given honoris causa!). On the other hand, I know for a fact that a lot of doctorates in my own state are so lacking in energy, enterprise and self-confidence that they eagerly sit for examinations to qualify as bank clerks and middle-school teachers. Is Mr. Pitroda juvenile enough to imagine that a nation can grow great on the shoulders of such pathetic ‘knowledgeable’ people?

2. What exactly does knowledge mean? What did Socrates or the Buddha know in comparison with, say, someone with a BTech in electronics or an MA in English?

3. Is knowledge only that which is saleable? In that case, of course, Shah Rukh Khan and Sachin and the average lawyer or surgeon and fashion model ‘knows’ infinitely more than a great art historian or astronomer can ever think of knowing, right?

4. Doesn’t a sincere and hardworking schoolteacher whose efforts not only made thousands literate and numerate, but got them interested in history and geography and biology and painting and music ‘know’ anything mentionable and valuable?

5. What kind of a ‘knowledge society’ is it that cannot produce ten Nobel Prize winners in 60 years? And where 'educated' people rarely buy books or visit libraries?

6. If we were so keen on creating a ‘knowledge society’, why do we reward our teachers so poorly at all levels, in cash as well as in social regard – so poorly that no modern Indian parent wants his son or daughter to choose to be a teacher?

7. I have always said that there is no better test of who knows how much than asking people to take an impromptu general quiz, and write an essay and speak in an intelligent, informed way for ten minutes on a topic chosen at random, and my entire teaching experience assures me that 95% of all the ‘educated’ adults I know would fail such a test miserably. This, also, bears thinking about.

8. What kind of knowledge is it that becomes obsolete in ten years? If we truly believe that life is precious, and all of Warren Buffett’s wealth will not bring back five minutes of our lives, are we sure we are investing our time well when we pursue such ‘knowledge’ (remember, when Ernest Rutherford was asked in his old age what he would do if he could live his life all over again, he said ‘collect more butterflies’!)

9. Why is this country’s newspapers full of stories about the worst sort of crimes consistently committed by ‘knowledgeable’ people – from peeing by the roadside to fighting in queues to killing female foetuses and abusing child labourers and spreading gossip and superstition?

10. Why did Tagore – not exactly an ignorant man himself – lament that the world needs good men far more than clever and learned ones?

Maybe it is too much to expect the likes of Mr. Pitroda to think so much, and of so many things, but is it the same with all my readers?

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Rashmoni: a dim, distant light

[This article was written in response to Tanmoy’s recent request, and stimulated by things I have been reading, including an article in The Sunday Statesman a couple of weeks ago]

‘Rani’ Rashmoni (born in 1793 – the very year that Lord Cornwallis established the modern form of zamindari in Bengal with the Act of Permanent Settlement – to a poor farming family), was married at the age of 11 to Babu Rajachandra Das, wealthy zamindar of Janbazar in Kolkata. I wonder how the match was made: maybe her fabled beauty helped, or maybe it was her extraordinary native intelligence. It is known that she had a most unusual appetite for education, and her husband, who started by tutoring her, came to be deeply impressed by her innate worldly wisdom and began to depend more and more on her counsel for managing and growing his vast business and properties (a kind of respect and reliance that would be rare to find even among ‘educated’ modern-day husbands, though I am not at all sure whether the wives or husbands are more to blame!). Her husband passed away when she was pushing forty, and she lived on for almost three more decades.

In an intensely male-dominated world, and in a Bengal that was virtually supine under the heel of a harsh and predatory British government, she lived a life of exemplary independence, shrewdness, charity and piety: very few people I meet have the depth of mind even to realize how incredible that combination is. Ably assisted by her devoted son-in-law Mathurbabu, she not only preserved and expanded her wealth, but, while making enormous philanthropic bequests to numerous deserving causes and risking the wrath of the government and her own material ruin again and again in the process (as when she bought up loads of East India Company shares dirt cheap during distress sales triggered by the terror of the 1857 mutiny – how proud George Soros and Warren Buffett would have been to know her!), she continued to live the simple, self-effacing, almost penurious life of the traditional Hindu widow (obviously out of deep personal conviction – I am reminded of Khushwant Singh’s reminiscences about his own grandmother – no mere cabal of Brahmin priests could have browbeaten a woman like that into it against her will): she did not need to live the useless, horrendously expensive, wild life of the page-three party-animal (so common in metropolitan circles in all lands and ages, from Babylon to New Delhi today) to prove to society that she was somebody. And of course, many learned elderly Bengalis will insist that her greatest work was discovering, employing, tolerating and encouraging the divine madman who came to be known as Sri Ramakrishna, who, through his great disciple Vivekananda and his mental disciple Subhas Bose, contributed in largest measure to bringing about whatever renaissance Bengal can boast about in the last thousand years (that even the memory, leave alone the pride in the truly great is gone is of course another story – those who have boasted of Sasanka and Atish Dipankar and Sri Chaitanya and Rammohun Roy and Tagore and Satyajit Ray have only Sourav Ganguly to cling to, and their only personal dream is that their sons might get a green card to settle in the USA. How much we have ‘progressed’ over the last three or four generations, indeed).

How many young, educated, ‘ambitious’ Bengalis today can even talk for five minutes about a figure like Rani Rashmoni, leave alone naming her as one of their ideals? How many of today’s young Bengali women between 15 and 40 will do it? Can they claim that they have ‘better’ ideals (if, indeed, they have any ideals worth the name at all) – because they are cleverer, more informed, more worldly-wise, more ‘liberated’ now? And in this context, this is to all my women (especially Bengali women) readers, who have the nagging suspicion that I do not ‘respect’ women enough: I do, but after having read this little essay, and then visiting what I wrote about Sudha Murthy a few months ago ('Wise and otherwise'...) and the blogpost titled ‘Those who love: book review’ about Abigail Adams that I wrote a year ago, can they not understand that though I try very hard to admire women, I have found pitifully few around me who live up to my expectations?

P.S.: …and I am not an incorrigible MCP. I was reading Krishna Basu’s article in a Bengali newspaper the other day (Shongbad Protidin, Nov. 15 2008), lamenting over how Indian women are still taught to be proud of the achievements, however small, of their menfolk – fathers, husbands and sons – while the majority of men still sneer at the idea that they could be proud of their women, too. My wife is in many ways a very quiet, reclusive, ‘ordinary’ woman, never likely to make it to the headlines, but I am immensely proud that she does not obsess over sarees, jewellery, makeup, and her daughter’s report card, that she has a mind to think with, that she reads a lot of books, gives a lot in charity, and has some serious spiritual concerns. I am looking forward to being proud of my daughter, too.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

A warm thank you!

I have just visited this blog and found that 150-plus visitors have very kindly voted on my poll already, and more than a hundred have clicked on the option of ‘All of the above’ (there are 45 days left to vote still, so I shall keep expecting more). I am aware that people visit this blog from all over my town, and from many cities across India, and from Japan and New Zealand and Singapore and the US and maybe elsewhere too. It truly gives me a good feeling; to be able to sit in the comfort of my home and write as and when I please about whatever interests me, and know that I am being read by so many of very different ages and dispositions, so near and far. My pleasure would be greatly enhanced if I got more comments which could initiate long and exhilarating conversations in which many readers could join in. I also, once more, invite suggestions from all readers about what they want me to write on next: please send such requests as comments here itself, so that I can find all suggestions in one place, and attend to them one by one to the best of my ability.

My best wishes to all my readers and their loved ones. May we all become better friends with the passage of time!

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Hello, everybody!

I am really beginning to enjoy the blogging experience at last, having found and begun to make friends with some fellow spirits who can really write well, write pretty often, and always have a lot of interesting things to say. To those who are regular visitors to this blog, several requests, again:

1. Do please visit these blogs I have listed in 'Blogs I often visit': just scroll down the right sidebar and you will find the list.

2. Do engage us all in frequent and stimulating conversations - we'll all enjoy them.

3. Do hurry up and vote on my poll: I am dying to see how soon the number of those who voted 'All of the above' crosses one hundred.

4. Do enlist on the 'follower' roll. I have got thirty there till the moment of writing, but I know dozens more visit this blog pretty often - are they absent minded, or just feeling shy?

5. New visitors: don't go away after just visiting my home page. Scroll down to the bottom and click on 'older posts'. There are lots of them now, and a few are sure to catch your eye. I shall be glad to have comments/observations/experiences to share in connection with any post. Nothing here is irrelevant and out of date. (N.B.: I'd particularly like comments to appear on my 'earliest posts' - see my labels on the right hand sidebar - which, I fear, have not been read by many visitors who have come to know this blog recently).

To those blogwriters on my list of frequently-visited blogs who write well but too rarely - Abhirup, Arani, Ishani, Nishant, Sayantani, Shilpi, Shubhabrata, Sudipto, Suvro Sarkar - do please write more often, at least once a month.

In a world where so many nice people are lonely most of the time because they have hardly anybody sensible and decent to talk to, I shall consider myself privileged if I can bring a lot of such people together in animated interactions over all sorts of interesting subjects.

P.S., Nov. 15: There are only 47 days left before the poll closes!

Sunday, November 09, 2008

For a laugh...

Type 'Wise and otherwise' in the search bar to read my review of Sudha Murty's book, and particularly the comment I have written today!

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Go, Obama, go!

All day long, in between attending to sundry household chores and doing what I do 340 days a year to make a living, I have been watching the TV and surfing the Net to follow the coverage of Barack Hussein Obama’s spectacular and epoch-making electoral victory.

While he has all my most earnest admiration and good wishes for his Presidency, here are a few things that I have been thinking about:

1. It is for no flimsy reason that America and the world are equally breathless today: the USA has at last made good on the most fundamental promise of the world’s first (and arguably grandest) written constitution, and on Lincoln’s ideal, and on Martin Luther King’s dream – and they couldn’t have found a better man to personify and energise the whole thing. They finally have a black man in the world’s most powerful office. I hope they have a woman there soon, too.

2. Obama’s campaign was the most expensive, the most intense, the most inclusive, and perhaps the longest that America has ever seen. On top of that, the man’s personal charisma has been truly awesome – in the original and not current grossly cheapened sense of the word (lots of normally staid and balanced people are now openly comparing him with JFK), and that has gone a very long way to swing the vote in a way that would have been unthinkable maybe even two decades ago (besides seeing a level of voter turnout that most pundits would have called unthinkable even a few weeks ago). One more proof, if proof was ever needed, that individuals matter, now as always in history.

3. As so many people have been pointing out, the President-elect, who has just announced that ‘change has come to America!’ will have an overflowing in-tray on his very first day in the Oval Office, and all of them problems of the stickiest and most urgent sort. He needs the whole world’s best wishes – if only because as things stand today, so much on the world depends on what happens to the US of A. I was listening to Barkha Dutt in Chicago talking about the enormous ‘burden of expectations’ on his shoulders, I have been listening to various experts gloomily warning that he has very few choices and very little room for manouevre, and very little time before the ecstatic dreams begin to sour, and Anand Mahindra the industrialist reminding everybody on NDTV that it will take incredible luck, talent, vision and energy to manage the intense racial (as well as rich-poor) polarisation that has happened in the process of this election – and no matter how much Obama himself or superstars like Oprah gush on TV that this is about all of America ('we are, and always will be, the United States of America'), and about change that everyone everywhere wants, there are very tough times ahead for the new President. The best thing going in his favour is that he seems to be so remarkably calm and unruffled and confident about what he is going to have to do. A man like that deserves the world’s best wishes, too.

4. I was much moved by the grace with which senator John McCain publicly conceded defeat. You need to be a truly big man, and it helps to live in a really nice society, to be able to do that sort of thing. I wish and pray that we Indians learn a few lessons about how to live public lives in high places from this example (I am reminded of how prime minister AB Vajpayee said after the terrorist attack on our Parliament house that where the leader of the Opposition – he meant Sonia Gandhi who had just rung him up – enquires anxiously after the PM’s health and safety, democracy is safe. I wish I could be so sure!)

5. I am as sure as any TV-expert that no big change is going to happen soon in connection with the US policy towards India. So if I am still so interested in this whole thing, it is because elite Indians love to talk about this country as the world’s biggest democracy, which therefore has 'natural and deep harmonies' with the way America thinks and acts. I hope a lot more of us reflect on how true that is!

Monday, October 27, 2008

Request to frequent visitors

Would you mind if I made two requests?
1. Please take the trouble to vote on the poll posted on the right hand side (if you haven't already). I've got 90 votes: once it crosses one hundred I'll be able to make a serious decision about continuing this blog.
2. I notice that some readers have enlisted themselves as 'followers' of this blog (I didn't know that this facility existed!). I know, also, that lots of others visit frequently: would they mind enlisting themselves similarly? It would help me and many others to keep track of one another: clicking on the 'follower' link takes you to that person's profile and (if there's one) personal blog.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Politics: chhee chhee?

Now that the American Presidential election-race has really heated up, a lot of interesting things are happening on the Net in connection with it. I found the following link on the official Google blog particularly noteworthy:

Some American teachers are organizing a letter-writing campaign to the next President. I avidly read numerous 11th-grade (class 11) students writing about the issues that are close to their hearts, issues they want the next Chief Executive to think about and act upon: the war in Iraq, the price of gas (petrol), the state of education and healthcare, the matter of growing infringement of human rights in the name of ‘homeland security’, the gathering economic recession… It is not that all these young folks are very clever or very articulate or very well-informed; it does not even bother me whether the new President will really be much bothered by these letters (though the fact that an organization as big and far-reaching as Google has taken the initiative in this regard makes me hope that they will matter): I am happily surprised that so many of today’s American schoolgoing teenagers take such an active interest in political issues – that means they do understand that politics closely affects their everyday lives, and they want to make a difference by getting involved, even in a small way.

Contrast that with Shashi Tharoor’s lament (Tharoor is a writer and hotshot diplomat: he came within a whisker of becoming the UN Secretary-General last time) in today’s edition of The Times of India (p.8, Kolkata edition, 'The nation needs principled youngsters'):

Read the article. I have commented on this issue earlier on this blog: it will always remain a live and immediate issue with me. I entirely agree with Tharoor, who, like me, knows perfectly well why our educated urban middle-class has stayed (a little disdainfully, a little enviously, a little fearfully) out of politics for three generations or more, but nevertheless insists that India does not have much of a future unless today’s educated young Indians (at least the small percentage who have any values and ideals at all) realize that ‘not getting involved in politics is a copout. The nation needs you.’ For far too long all our ‘good’ boys and girls have been told to steer clear and aim at a vision of very narrow self-advancement in complete denial of the larger social realities. Unfortunately it’s not working any more.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Forty-five, and counting!

I was born, I am told, late in the evening of Thursday, the 17th October, 1963. By that count I have lived 45 years on this earth today. No matter what I look like, and what I feel like, or others think about me, it is a statistical fact that I am now firmly in “middle age” (even if I live to be 90-plus, which God forbid). Nice time to look back and jot down a few thoughts for the occasion.

In some ways it is not really very unpleasant. I had an on-the-whole unhappy childhood and early youth, so unlike many people (countless children are told to write and cram essays about how childhood is the best period of one’s life), I do not suffer much from nostalgia. Over the last three decades I have almost continuously been enjoying the present to the full, despite all the ups and downs. Besides, having grown up to be precocious, fancy-free, adventurous and widely-read, I have known from very early days how people are supposed to feel in their prime and as the shadow of old age begins to loom – the good feelings as well as the bad ones – so I cannot say I feel very surprised or sad or let-down: not even over the fact that the last 25 years (since youth began) seem to have flashed by in the twinkling of an eye. I am thankful that I am still reasonably fit and in full possession of my mental faculties; I don’t look bloated, sagging, haggard or decrepit like so many of my contemporaries, I do not suffer from poverty, and I have far more time than most to call my own and use as I (rather than my boss or that beast called ‘society’) like. I consider myself very fortunate to have a patient, intelligent, understanding, non-greedy and non-ugly wife with whom I share a lot of interests, and to see a beautiful and clever daughter growing up apace before my eyes, loving me as few daughters love their fathers, and developing so many interests (such as books and movies and music and self-control and caution with money and an inclination for charity) that I badly wanted to share with her.

I know I am slowing down, and I tire more easily, and have grown much more ease-loving than I used to be, but I allow myself some consideration: I have gone through privations enough, and slogged it out enough (far more than most of my contemporaries: their parents were fanning them and helping them drink green coconut water as they went through the ‘ordeal’ of the Joint Entrance examination with me, while I was earning my living teaching a horde of pupils almost my own age and writing freelance for sundry newspapers!), and now I am old enough. I regret some bad habits which I have not been able to get rid of – and which will probably kill me eventually – and the fact that the legion of beloved old boys and girls has not become as large as I wanted, and stayed as closely in touch as I wanted, and that so many people whom I have never harmed would be delighted to hear of anything bad that has happened to me, and that some whom I have always cared deeply for have decided to rub me out of their lives, but let that be: we are not given all things that we desire. The important thing is to be aware of how much I have got, and to make the best of it, and be thankful.

As things stand, I can even feel a cautious twinge of optimism. Perhaps I am going to stick around for a while still, and if I do, old age might be the best time of my life, after all, who knows? ‘Grow old along with me’, wrote Robert Browning to his wife, ‘the best is yet to be’. Keats called my age ‘the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’. Many of the men I most admire did their greatest works in old age. Susan Sarandon said she felt ‘girlish’ on her 50th birthday, and a recent survey, published in The Telegraph of October 15 (see bottom of page 2) says that men are at their most romantic in the eyes of women at 53! I also admire the naughty but loveable character called Uncle Oswald created by Roald Dahl, and he will remain an inspiration. Having got rid of a full-time driver, I am beginning to rediscover how much I enjoyed driving, and some day I might try my hand at writing poems in French again, and even flying a biplane, maybe: aeroplanes were one of my first loves. Very soon, I might go hiking in the mountains with my daughter and a few friends of hers in tow. And drink some of the best champagne: I haven’t had enough yet. In sum, I am determined not to grow too sombre and withdrawn to miss the very many pleasures that life might still have in store for me. If there are some readers who like me, they might wish me luck!

Monday, October 06, 2008

Bengal's annual madness

It’s currently that time of the year when I cannot help wishing I was somewhere very far away from Bengal – in a more salubrious climate, happily engaged in the kind of work that I love doing all year round, with no noise and pollution of diverse other kinds, and specifically no crowds of Bengalis enjoying themselves on the occasion of the monstrous annual orgy they call Durga-pujo. I pray that that is how I can spend at least my old age!

Here are a few things I’d like folks to think about:

1. The kind of money we splurge during this month (essentially on clothes, jewellery, cosmetics, fuel, liquor, gambling and other luxuries) would be enough to remove all the most obviously ugly and pathetic traces of extreme poverty from this state (one of the poorest in a poor country), if used wisely and in a sustained fashion, for just one decade;
2. As any police officer will aver, the graphs of deaths and crippling injuries in traffic accidents spike during this month, owing to wild and drunken driving in the name of having fun, and any doctor would tell you that the greatest number of people fall seriously ill during this month owing to gross carelessness and over-indulgence in bad food and romping around town all night: how can people call this ‘enjoyment’ and still pretend they are either sensible or civilized?
3. In a state which very badly needs economic development, several tens of millions of working days are lost during this month because very little work gets done, since most government offices remain closed for the majority of days this month, although officially the number of public holidays aren’t more than five or six! Also reflect – how can so many of us have fun, knowing (or rather, ignoring the fact) that many millions get no holidays at all during this time, either because they are the likes of day labourers, or shopkeepers who cannot afford to down shutters during the season of the busiest business, or policemen, firemen, doctors and nurses on emergency duty, airline crews and hotel staff, power plant engineers and so on, who have to do compulsory duty during these days (though their wives and children might be having fun – who cares that hubby/daddy is slogging away to finance their ‘fun’?)
4. Millions of people who wish their fellow humans no harm but only want to be left in peace – like me, and people much older, with heart disease, and lung ailments, and weak nerves and so on – can neither walk in safety on the roads nor get a good night’s sleep for days on end, because so many millions of people are ‘having fun’ in the crudest and noisiest ways they can think of. Every night between 10 and 4 o’clock scores of buses park and spew out streams of revellers on the street on which I live, and the electric horns blaring and ‘happy’ people screaming at one another and blowing raucous trumpets by the hundred ensure that I get a splitting headache. And every morning I and some other neighbours have to hold our noses while we pour bleaching powder into the gutters where thousands have relieved their bladders (men and women, young and old, in full public view) all through the night! In a country where the government has gotten so concerned about not letting smokers hurt innocent others by indulging their bad habit in public, why doesn’t it strike anybody that pollution on this monstrous scale hurts far more people far more seriously?
5. Is this really how people ought or need to have fun? What about all those countries which have nothing equivalent to celebrate in like fashion: are they all, unlike us, terribly unhappy people? Has anybody bothered to find out?
6. Also keeping in mind how grossly the whole thing has become commercialized in the last couple of decades – nobody can disagree that Durga-pujo is now all about advertising, buying and showing off things that nobody really needs (or needs at a specific time of the year only) – why keep pretending that religion has anything to do with it? At this time of the year I always wish I was surrounded by scientists and communists and other godless people! Visit the shrines of any other religion – Christian, Jew, Sikh, Buddhist, Muslim – on any of their major religious occasions, and you are bound to notice certain stark differences. You will notice the quietness and cleanliness for example, and the fact that these occasions are usually not for gorging but fasting, not for splurging but charity, and prayer is given much higher priority than merrymaking. These days at the ‘pandals’, nobody below sixty even pretends that they have anything remotely religious in mind (not understanding a word of the prayers chanted by the priests in Sanskrit helps enormously, I’m sure) – on the contrary, virtually every kind of vulgarity is encouraged and practiced with gusto, from drunken dancing to lechery of the most obvious kind! True atheism is infinitely preferable to this kind of blasphemy and heresy.

It’s become, I notice, a fad to wish everybody health and happiness and stuff on this ‘festive occasion’ with taglines on one’s gmail i.d. or orkut profile or blog header. I’m sorry I can’t oblige. I cannot wish everybody well, but only decent people. I am sure there are still some around. Recent ‘robibashoriyo’ articles in Anandabazar Patrika mocking the Bengali’s pujo madness in divers ways give me reason for hope. So also the fact that so many Bengalis run away from Bengal during this time of the year!

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Another old friend gone: Father Wavreil

Father Adrian Wavreil, s.j., passed away last night. He was over eighty, so I cannot call it an untimely death, but it is rather strange that he should have had to die of snakebite, of all things!

He was a member of that almost dying breed called gentlemen. He was, in my definition, an educated man (and I am sure most readers know just how finicky I am about calling anybody educated). Twenty years ago, it was he who, along with my old teacher Father Pierre-Yves Gilson, got me into St. Xavier’s School, Durgapur, and thereby not only significantly changed my life but, I suspect, those of a lot of other people too.

For reasons best known to him and the organization that he served, he never contacted me after 2002, when I quit. He is one of the few human beings I missed, and I am the sort of person whose memories never dim, so I shall go on missing him forever, as I miss Fr. Gilson and Fr. Wautier, both now long gone. Today’s young people will of course never know what they have missed. Maybe they will never need to know!

God rest his soul. I hope in another birth we can be friends and colleagues again.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Charity and other things...

There is a scene in Lage Raho Munnabhai where a girl talks to Munna over the phone, asking him how to make out whether the young blade who has asked her out on a date would be a good husband, and Munna tells her to take good note of how the man addresses the waiter at the restaurant. The young man unwittingly does what he is used to doing – because he is a rich man’s spoilt and snooty brat, he snaps his fingers and makes the kind of noise (‘tch tch’) that we normally use to call our pet dogs – and the girl runs, as Munnabhai had told her to do: a man who behaves like that with waiters is not a good man to tie up with for a lifetime.

I endorse that view completely. My experience tells me that to find out whether some people are nice people or not, ask their durwan, maali, maidservant and driver, and ask about them at the local grocery (Does she have a civil tongue? Does he bargain even over a single rupee? Does he pay his bills on time without having to be reminded?). And also find out what their attitude towards charity is. If all the indices are negative, you would be well advised to give them a wide berth – no matter whether they are good looking, rich, ‘educated’ and whatever.

I am trying very hard to pass on lessons from life like this one to my daughter, knowing that how well she will do in her career as a writer, lawyer, corporate manager, bureaucrat, teacher, movie director, advertising expert or whatever will depend in much larger measure on such lessons than what she crams from school- and college textbooks. I have been telling her, for instance, to observe very keenly how people react to a request for charity – at school and in the neighbourhood – because she can learn a very great deal about what human beings are really like that way, and forewarned is forearmed.

So, although I have had rather bitter experiences when trying to collect funds for this or that (in my view deserving-) cause, I did not say ‘no’ to my daughter when she told me two days ago that her school authorities had asked some girls in her class whether they could go around collecting money to donate for the flood-affected poor in Bihar, and she was one of those (not many) who had volunteered. I only told her to restrict herself to the people living on our own street and the adjacent two – that would be enough for starters (she had actually done this before, with friends, but this was the first time she was going alone). I also told her to write on top of the collection list that her dad had already promised Rs. 200 (I have no intention of breaking the promise), and then try her luck. I knew she was going to learn a few things, and I was not disappointed.

She came home with a headache only partly due to roaming about for more than two hours in the sun, and quite a few stories to tell. She had collected Rs. 176 after visiting twenty households during that time. Most people had given her just five or ten rupees, and that most grudgingly – despite the fact that they were obviously well-off if not rich (she said she knew some of them, and they probably wouldn’t have given even that much if their sons and daughters were not my current pupils, or about to be!); some bluntly told her to go away because they never gave money to charity, some expressed irritation and serious doubts about her intentions, one family said very loudly behind her retreating back that she was showing off, asking for charity in English! At the same time, my insistence that she never lose hope and faith in mankind has been vindicated, too: one family asked her in and treated her to mishti and cold water, while another woman, who did not seem very well-off at all, gave her all of fifty rupees after checking that she had her papers in order.

Sounds familiar? Well, it does to me. No amount of book-learning or lecturing from her parents could have taught my daughter more about things that matter in one morning. She already understands, as few of my much older students do, that charity is good, charity is hard, and if you go around dealing with people for a good cause you had better be very persuasive, very optimistic, and have a very thick skin! – and you had better learn to ignore all those clever and plausible people who will give you a hundred reasons to prove that you are wasting your time.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Thoughts for Teachers' Day

Prestige and dignity, pride and respect

[This is a long one again: don’t read if you are “busy”!]

These words have great and genuinely respectable meanings in many a context. Yet they have been so widely abused – and taken advantage of – in every culture and every age that in lots of cynical eyes they have become quite meaningless, or worse.

As I see it, certain ideals and institutions, and individuals who have stuck to and upheld these ideals and institutions, often at great personal risk or cost (sometimes life itself) gradually acquire prestige, meaning respect amounting to awe. It often takes a very long time to acquire that kind of prestige and the labours of many great and dedicated men (Sir James Murray’s lifetime labour gave the Oxford Dictionary its prestige, men like Drake and Nelson gave it to the British navy, and Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, the Roosevelts and a few others together gave it to the American presidency); it can easily take centuries. So it is with the office of the Pope – still at least halfheartedly believed by millions to be the living representative of Christ on earth, even after two millennia of turmoil, corruption, cruelty, base compromise with earthly lords and interests, bureaucratic intrigue and apathy, and all the challenges from critics, including purveyors of other religions, godless scientists and communists. So with organizations like the Royal Society. So with the world’s oldest extant universities. So with the Shaolin temple in the sphere of the martial arts, or cordon bleu chefs in the world of gastronomy, or the Rolls Royce when it comes to cars, or Lloyd’s Register in the world of marine insurance and underwriting, or The Times of London when we are talking about newspapers. Prestige comes from a reputation for old, established quality of an unusually high order, quality long sustained in the face of harsh and diverse challenges; a quality which may be moral or spiritual, academic or practical, but quality nevertheless. Prestige means also that the very name of an institution, organisation or title is widely assumed to be a guarantor of quality, so the ‘customer’ (whether he be a seeker of knowledge, luxury or glory) may be assured that he is buying into a good thing without having to do too much fact-finding for himself; he also hopes some of that prestige will rub off on him – my doctorate is from such a great university, I am a priest of such a hoary religion, I drive only the best cars and dine at the best restaurants, so others less fortunate and less distinguished will look up to me and perchance envy me.

If it is admitted that beyond air, water, food and sex what men most want is a certain sense of identity, and since prestige gives identity as nothing else does (not even raw money or power), it follows that men will pay a very heavy price to acquire some prestige in their chosen walks of life: so countless scholars and monks are perfectly happy to live materially poor lives in great universities and abbeys, and so many soldiers were willing to die fighting for Alexander and Caesar and Napoleon. At a much baser level, crooked businessmen, once they have made their sordid piles, spend so much to buy seats in legislatures and the boards of great charities, while they wives spend little fortunes on ‘designer’ clothes, jewellery and cosmetics. This is the unfortunate, not to say pathetic side of prestige: unworthy people go to such absurd lengths to acquire the prestige that they neither deserve nor can really win for themselves (who cares about a page three wife except a handful of other page three wives?) – some folks pierce and maim their bodies to ‘look good’ according to local and current convention (I may not be a mentionable warrior, but at least I wear the right kind of costume and affect the right degree of snootiness!); some buy all kinds of junk they don’t need because it helps them to ‘identify’ with the celebrity icons who endorse said goods in TV advertisements, others try all they can to bend the rules which prevent them from joining institutions where they really have no place – in the process ever so slowly diluting the very standards on which the prestige of the organisation depends, until, if they are not careful, these organisations wake up one fine morning to find out that their old glory has faded away, leaving not a wrack behind. Thus have great empires vanished, and so also churches and universities and commercial marques. It is this way that the civil services in India have lost much of their sheen, and I can predict that the rate at which the great institutions of higher learning in Britain are signing up young morons from backward countries if their rich dads can pay full tuition is digging their own graves: the whole world will sneer at once-prestigious British universities fifty years from now. ‘Dwarfs in giants’ robes’ are bound to degrade every office and institution they swarm into. A few more like the present incumbent and the prestige of the White House is going to hit rock bottom!

One other thing that I should mention about prestige is that its signs and yardsticks are highly culture-specific, to the extent that what is very prestigious in one country or locale or peer group can sound meaningless or bizarre in another. Think of punks attending a conference of physicists, think of formula one racing stars visiting a venerable temple in Puri to watch some great religious function. A mere doorman might not let a samurai warrior from an ancient family into the hallowed portals of Wall Street, and the absolute dictator of one country might be subjected to a humiliating body search by lowly customs officials of another. They say only footballers have any real prestige in Brazil, and only baseball stars and tycoons in the United States. Jagjivan Ram, for two decades the second or third most powerful person in Indira Gandhi’s cabinet and an enormously rich man, was heard to lament that no blue-blooded Brahmin would marry his daughter, an ‘untouchable’. This is perhaps why the truly wise man does not believe in and stand on prestige at all: he is like a child, a citizen of the universe, and nothing that human beings can say or do can glorify him or insult him – with Shakespeare, he laughs and says ‘Lord, what fools these mortals be!’ If he has any dignity at all, his is the simple, unassailable dignity of the mendicant sage; he is one who calls every man his brother and no man his master. To my mind, no man who has become less than that deserves the tribute of both mind and heart, regardless of his age, his titles, degrees, rank, wealth or power: these are but baubles that we all need to outgrow, but one in ten million can. India once worshipped such men: our standards have fallen greatly of late, even as our wealth has multiplied and technical ‘experts’ proliferated.

So that brings us to the idea of dignity. It means a sense of self-possession and self-worth that does not depend too much on others’ recognition, and a serenity of temperament and solemnity of manner that stems from that sense. Most children are born undignified – they tumble in the dust and get into scrapes and lick the same ice-cream and yell and make faces with utter self-abandon, and laugh shrilly over it (we have heard of very young children with a remarkable air of dignity too, but they are rare, and make their peers uncomfortable and their elders worried, lest they should become weird prodigies or renounce the world or go just plain mad). As we grow, we learn to acquire at least a modicum of dignity by simply watching and imitating our supposed betters – older siblings, parents, teachers, bosses. With most of us, this does not take us very far; learning by imitating without understanding and personal appreciation has not been called ‘aping’ for nothing. It merely makes us warped, less natural and spontaneous and lively and interesting than we might have been, and hypocritical. I have seen far too many people either making a fetish of dignity, so that form becomes much more important than substance: mediocre schoolteachers insist that a boy who asks too many questions is being ‘disrespectful’ rather than clever, and so many ‘high level meetings’ everywhere involve nothing more than dozing and gorging delicacies and making polite noises at the appropriate places in the course of utterly boring and endless speeches – or throwing all dignity to the winds the moment they are sure that some guardian is not looking over their shoulders (they call it ‘letting your hair down’ or ‘unwinding’, and they do it by acting like demented chimpanzees at parties and picnics and festivals, supposedly because it helps in ‘socializing’ and de-stressing every now and then. My point is, if the ‘pressure’ of keeping up an artificial fa├žade of dignity is so stressful, why keep up pretences so assiduously? Especially since, as I strongly suspect, the pressure, when released, makes people feel a desperate urge to misbehave while making up for ‘lost time’?) I believe that up to a point the Americans have done the world a great service by greatly cutting down on the need for such stilted, archaic forms of enforced dignity everywhere, from the home circle to universities, senates, churches and clubs. They might have gone a bit too far in the other direction – but about that more later.

Some people are by nature or through long habit more dignified than others. Some occupations require more dignity than others – doctors, lawyers and teachers are not supposed to be noisy and frivolous and irresponsible; nor are high officials of state and soldiers parading in public on important occasions. When people who by nature or upbringing are not suited to such jobs get in nevertheless they can make life difficult for their colleagues and superiors, and earn great contempt even if they are not booted out (imagine someone with the temperament of a video jockey becoming a banker): though a great deal of eccentricity, which is often lack of conventional dignity by another name, is forgiven to someone possessed of exceptional talents, someone like Mozart or Richard Feynman or Charles Wingate. People are supposed to become more dignified with age everywhere still, and most do, though this is at least in part a covering up of the very sad (and undignified) fact that they are growing weak and slowing down in both body and mind – and in most countries the young are taught and expected to defer to the dignified old. I haven’t been able to make up my mind about whether this is a good thing or not. I have read that in very primitive times most people died young, and the few who got to be old and feeble were simply left to freeze in the cold or be devoured by wolves and vultures: now that is a horrible thing to think of, and in these comparatively civilized times we cannot deal with the old like that; besides there are far too many old folks in all ‘advanced’ countries now to deal with in such cavalier fashion – they have money and hold too many votes, and ever so slowly they are forcing law and society to accommodate their special needs (there are now veterans’ Olympics, and a store in Germany caters only to people above sixty). But is it right for the young to listen to and obey the old too much, just because they are old and ‘dignified’?

I believe that Americans discovered a century ago that the old hold up progress through timidity and by insisting too much on blind obedience and old conventions, so they as a nation threw these virtues to the winds – and look, it has certainly helped them advance in every sphere of life, from politics to technology to global cultural domination through the airwaves! In the process, the old there have got a rather raw deal: they grow lonely and helpless as old folks do everywhere, and do not even have the compensation of being revered and obeyed. As a result elderly people in America (and their imitators throughout the world) are now desperately trying to cling to the image of youthfulness for as long as they can, and a multibillion dollar industry of ‘anti-ageing’ cosmetics and sauna baths, sanatoriums, vitalizer drugs, silicone implants, botox injections and plastic surgery has sprouted to cater to their needs: if you stand back and watch thoughtfully, doesn’t it look terribly undignified? If all these gimmicks can make you look and feel young a little longer that’s fine (if they don’t bankrupt you!) but what can you say when you see middle-aged mothers competing with their teenage daughters in flaunting sex appeal, or people in their 60s and 70s still meddling in their grown-up children’s affairs to feel important and needed (as millions of middle class parents in India are doing right now)? Why shouldn’t people have the moral right and courage to acknowledge they are old and enjoy to the full all the advantages that old age brings: lightened family burdens, the end of the rat race for marks, promotions, bigger pay packets and social status, the joy of bringing up grandchildren, leisure to cultivate all the hobbies one never had the time and money for before, the freedom and poise needed to turn one’s attention to those things which all great religions have called the higher or ultimate goals of life – charity, art, peace of mind, salvation of the soul? There’s something terribly wrong with a civilization which has robbed old people of their dignity in this fashion, forcing them to count their days in useless idleness and pitying themselves until they can be thrown into the garbage bin.

Here’s another thought. In India – perhaps because we have been slaves of someone or the other for a thousand years – we confuse conceit (ahamkar) too easily and commonly with dignity (self-respect) and pride (gaurav), which stems only from great achievements. A truly dignified person will not boast of petty achievements (or things which are not even achievements – like good looks or one’s father’s money or connections) and throw his weight about with his subordinates (pupils, juniors at the office, wife, poor people); at the same time he will not cheat in examinations, vandalize public property, take bribes right and left, use foul language among friends and grovel before superiors as though his life depends on it. Alas, that is precisely what most of us do, and quite unselfconsciously too: in fact we get very angry when someone points out that it is uncouth. This is one of the many things about the Indian social psyche that disgusts me, and I am quite convinced that next to the problem of overpopulation, this is the single greatest stumbling block to our national progress. We neither care to know the limits on our own behaviour that dignity demands, nor are we ready to acknowledge the rights of others that the same dignity requires we acknowledge (once upon a time there was a name for it: noblesse oblige) – we all believe that if I am ‘somebody’, the rules do not apply to me. If you think about it, a nation with so much conceit and so little pride and dignity cannot progress, because it has never taken pains to understand the true meaning of progress at all. A nation can only progress when it encourages lots of people to put the right kind of dignity above physical security, immediate convenience, peer approval and material comforts, and a nation can be said to have progressed only when the humblest peon and maidservant and shopkeeper is guaranteed a minimum of personal dignity which cannot be violated by the highest in the land, while those who hold the reins of power have also learnt to behave with the dignity appropriate to their exalted offices; the kind of dignity that Tagore spoke of so eloquently in Rajarshi. 2,300 years after Plato, such philosopher-kings are still very much the exception rather than the rule. Our hoi polloi have never been educated in that sense (I know a lot of hoi polloi with MBAs and PhDs), and our leaders say they are always too busy to pay attention to niceties. And yet so many Indians with eyes to see with go to ‘advanced’ countries only to gush over how it is precisely an attention to niceties that separates them from us in every walk of life!

What have we been taught about ‘respect’ in India? We have been trained to confuse respect with the deference and servility to authority figures (father, husband, teachers, thanedaars, netas, employers…) that stems out of fear: we have been told that no matter how much we might dislike them, or how obviously wrong they might be or unreasonable their demands might be, we had better obey them silently, for it’s always ‘or else…!’ So, generation after generation, we have gone through the motions of being ‘respectful’ to our ‘betters’ (usually males, parents, people who are older, people of ‘higher’ castes or of the dominant religion, people holding superior office), often for no other reason than that they happen to hold the whip hand over us, though most of us like to pretend that we obey because ‘they always know better what is good for us’. This has had some really terrible consequences.

For one thing, the slave who cringes and grovels at his master’s feet obviously desires nothing better than to cheat or hurt the master, or at least to see him cheated and hurt, whenever he’s sure he can get away with it. So we easily forget and even abuse our old parents or at least wish to be rid of them (they are no longer ‘masters’, you see, and deep in our subconscious there’s this intense desire to get a bit of our own back, sick as that sounds). So we call someone mad who insists that we should take pride in our work and do it well even if the master is not breathing down our necks. So servants rob and murder and rape masters and mistresses so often. So we eagerly speak ill of our teachers/bosses behind their backs (the ‘masters’ have to make do with mere make-believe of ‘respect’, though many of them are bitterly aware that the slaves would gladly dance over their graves!) At the same time, we believe that, while our masters have a right to grind us under their heels, we have an equal right to deal with those ‘below’ us the same way – so, despite our vaunted self-identity as a ‘democratic’ society, we still think that parents ought to get away with every kind of child abuse short of murder; witness also the way teachers and senior officers talk down to students and subordinates; see how the disgusting practice called ‘ragging’ flourishes on our college campuses, or look at the heartless high-handedness with which our bureaucrats deal with people who queue up before them for everything from pensions to driving licenses, passports and ration cards: they are not government functionaries getting paid for doing their jobs well, but petty feudal lords doling out favours out of the largeness of their hearts – unless, of course, you are a mafia boss with deep pockets, a reputation for violence and powerful political godfathers – in which case they seldom make a mistake about who should fall at whose feet! (this, by the way, is why I tell all my pupils never to give me gifts or touch my feet unless they personally and strongly feel like doing it).

Real respect, like real pride, is very rare in this country. A housewife who, despite poverty and a backbreaking workload, always manages to keep the house neat and beautiful has legitimate reason for pride; so also the man who has never cheated or flattered or bribed anybody for favours and yet has succeeded in making a decent livelihood. Someone who has truly mastered a musical instrument or a language can likewise be proud of herself (I have met very few ‘educated’ Indians in my life who can write one page of elegant English quickly before my eyes without making a single mistake of spelling, grammar, syntax, idiom or choice of words; the same goes for their native tongues these days). I don’t need to speak of great social workers, or lame men who climb mountains – they have every reason to be proud. Modesty suits only the saint and the non-achiever. Now if you look around, you will see that very few people you know personally have done anything at all to be proud about: we’ve just got some degrees and found nondescript middle-level jobs, and are now just making a living from day to day like millions of others. Unable to be proud, we have conveniently forgotten to be proud, or decided it’s not necessary! And things keep getting worse…notice that these days we admire nothing but money (no matter how it has been made), nor can boast of anything but (well, marks in childhood and money after we have grown up). And even our admiration is little more than envy, our boasting only a desperate effort to hide from the voice constantly mocking us inside ‘you’re a nobody after all!’ This is why we love so much to speak ill of others, this is why we are so sensitive about what people are saying about us (anybody with low self-esteem is bound to be touchy that way), this is why we cannot bear to hear somebody being spoken well of: not being capable of giving respect ourselves, we insist that if someone is showing respect to somebody, it cannot be anything but sycophancy. Why should you respect anyone who can neither threaten you nor do you favours?

All this has been with us since time immemorial; the pity is that it refuses to go away. But I wish to end with something that is a relatively recent (and ghastly) development. Of late, now that we are getting used to living in a somewhat more permissive atmosphere, our young (without having given up most of the bad attitudes outlined above) have decided that since we no longer have to show people respect out of fear, we must go about being deliberately rude and cruel just to show how liberated and smart we have become. Look at how they shriek and scream ‘for fun’ in school these days, how they jostle the elderly in the malls, how they talk back to some old man who ‘dares’ to give them a bit of advice against littering or driving rashly, how they scoff at the idea that they might wish an old ex-teacher ‘Good morning ma’am, how do you do?’, how young wives these days think it is their ‘right’ to abuse their husbands at the drop of a hat. Some of my grown-up ex-students and strangers their age, much junior to me, start mails to me with ‘Suvro’ or 'Hi Suvro' or even ‘Hey Suvro’, forgetting that Indian/Bengali civility demands that they should address me as ‘Dear Sir’, or ‘Dear Mr. Chatterjee’, or at least ‘Dear Suvroda’. When I cut the line, or tell them to buzz off, they rarely acknowledge their lapse in manners and apologise; instead they insist they can’t see they have done anything wrong; or even declare that they hadn’t thought I could mind: ‘you’re so conventional!’ (don’t they do that sort of thing all the time in the US of A?). If I ask them whether they habitually address their fathers or fathers’ friends that way, they prefer not to answer. All things about tradition are neither silly nor obsolete; manners were invented to make social intercourse a better experience than a dogfight, especially to protect the weaker, the quieter, and the more decent among us. I wonder how the brash teenagers and twenty-somethings of today would feel in 2050, when they can no longer afford to be so aggressive and devil-may-care, when their grown-up children and folks their children’s age tell them night and day where they can shove their instinctive longing for a bit of dignity and respect. I hope they relish the experience.

Monday, September 01, 2008


I am reading a remarkable book right now, given me by my clever and thoughtful pupil Supra, and I thought I should write up a few paragraphs about it. It’s called blink (by Malcolm Gladwell, 2005, Back Bay Books/Little, Brown and Co., US $15.99). Its thesis, racily written and backed up by a great agglomeration of research findings, as such American books usually are, is that ‘thin-slicing’ of experience matters far more in human decision making than we know or believe – whether we are selling cars, or sizing up battlefield situations, or figuring out which of our patients are most likely to have a heart attack soon, or differentiating between fake and genuine works of art, our subconscious minds, working behind a ‘locked door’, make decisions in the blink of an eye, on the basis of extremely quick first-impressions, and those are the decisions which we often try to rationalize afterwards with all kinds of carefully-sifted evidence and closely-reasoned argument.
The author insists that it is by and large a good thing that most of us can do this ‘thin-slicing’, and do it fairly well: otherwise, in the swift hurly-burly of life, when a thousand quick decisions have to be taken and there’s no time to do ‘proper’ research and detailed analysis of pros and cons (such as slamming the brakes a few seconds before there is a traffic pileup ahead of you because ‘something’ warned you things were about to go wrong), we simply wouldn’t have survived. If some of us want to call this ‘intuition’, the author only wants us not to think that we are talking hocus-pocus about ‘supernatural’ powers: a well-developed intuition is only an ability to make very prompt judgments on the basis of long-accumulated, well-digested experience which is not always available to the conscious mind for instant processing. I am reminded of having read how hunters and commandos claim to have acquired a keenly-honed intuition on the basis of long and often costly experience; and Asimov wrote long ago that while great scientific ideas come far more often to the trained mind than to the layman, the trained scientist owes far more to sudden flashes of intuition than is commonly supposed. The author also acknowledges that some people have far keener intuitions than others: that is one reason they excel in their chosen fields of work (sharp stockbrokers, like brilliant generals, often find it very hard to explain in step-by-step logical terms what exactly made them decide on doing the things that brought them glory, victory or a big fortune).
I myself endorse the thesis to a great extent: as a private tutor who has to depend on a very flighty group of ‘customers’ who are very unsure of what they want from me, I have always known that whether I can keep my family in gravy depends a very great deal on what sort of first impression I make on new batches every year. Which is why, after so many years, I still worry quite a bit about ‘getting it just right from the first word to the last’ in the first class. Of course there are always pupils who later claim that I gradually ‘grew on them’ as the classes progressed, but I know that if I have to retain ninety percent of the group that turned up on the first day, I cannot afford even tiny mistakes in giving the kind of first impression I want to give – with most people (even those who follow the herd) the first impression can often be the last! It might all seem like spontaneous fun on the receiving end, but believe me, an enormous amount of cool and hardheaded planning, self-correcting, self-monitoring and practice has gone into shaping the ‘final product’.
What is most alarming about the author’s thesis is that we often can, and do, go hopelessly wrong in making such snap judgments, too, and it leads to untold woe and injustice. That happens because, alas, our unconscious minds are crammed with all sorts of prejudices and fixed ideas which are simply not true nor fair. Thus it seems to be a fact that tall men seem to have an unbeatable advantage when it comes to the selection of CEOs of large business corporations: no matter how silly or unbelievable or just plain wrong it sounds, a short man (or a woman!), however sharp and highly qualified, has the whole world’s deeply-ingrained bias against him/her (a leader is expected to have a domineering physical presence, and height is supposed to facilitate that greatly). This is apparently a statistical fact – so, in case you are thinking of Alexander or Napoleon or Vidyasagar or Sachin Tendulkar, remind yourself that these are truly exceptional people: how many such have you personally encountered? We are talking about the average MBA-type here (tall men with MBAs can be duds, of course: hence so many bad CEOs who drag their bottom lines down!) Likewise, the fact that a musician, first selected as brilliant when only heard by a great Philharmonic Orchestra, was rejected as soon as they saw that it was a woman, or the fact that far more black men get convicted with all kinds of crime than white men do in the US, despite the latter having the same weight of evidence against them, is due to the very unfortunate reality that typical judges and juries are still very heavily biased against women and blacks (woe betide the short and black woman!). And this sad reality is not altered by the fact that most of those judges and juries might be consciously very nice people, and very strongly not just profess but believe in the most liberal, egalitarian social values – we are talking subconscious minds here.
Gladwell, therefore, neither praises high-speed intuitive decision-making as the right thing to do in all situations, nor does he lament that its problems cannot be handled and cured, or at least ameliorated. Our biases against black men or women, for instance, which slow down our performances in all Implicit Association Tests (he says go to www.implicit.harvard.edu and take a test for yourself) are greatly weakened if we are asked to look at pictures of famous and great blacks or women for a while before sitting for the tests – ergo, it is highly recommended that social arrangements be gradually so re-organised that people in important decision-making positions first get a great deal of close first-hand exposure to nice and clever blacks and women and black women, so that those unconscious biases slowly fade. And since the bosses of the Munich Philharmonic chose both rightly and fairly when a screen prevented them from seeing that the musician was female, it is highly recommended that judges and juries do not get to see the accused, lest their unconscious biases get a chance to wreak havoc with sane judgments! It is this kind of practical solutions that appeal greatly to Gladwell – he is, after all, an American. Think how much harder it would be to bring about such social changes in a country like India, where our biases are not only explicit (every would-be bride who wants a good match had better be fair-complexioned), but most of us are still far from feeling guilty about them!
And finally, Gladwell suggests (with a doff of the hat at Freud) that all the mass of extant research seems to indicate that, contrary to popular wisdom, the big decisions – which require processing a great number of variables and juggling a great many facts – are best left to the subconscious, while the minor decisions in life (do I want a chocolate sundae right now?) can be dealt with in the best traditions of slow and careful analytical thinking. He tells people that the knowledge provided by this book should make us more aware that we could very often be wrong (shades of Russell!), and that should make us more forgiving towards those who cannot consciously help being wrong (that would have warmed Jesus’ heart). He also warns that having too much information at one’s fingertips can actually be disastrous instead of a great help to wise decision making, by making us both complacent and confused: that, says Gladwell, is precisely why the vast US military/intelligence apparatus, with all their superdooper technology and mathematical models, got their prognostication of the ongoing war in Iraq so horribly wrong!
Try the book. For some people, especially those still under 30, it could be a life-changing experience.