Wednesday, December 31, 2008
Wednesday, December 17, 2008
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 10: Television is NOT real life. In real life people actually have to leave the coffee shop and go to jobs.
Wednesday, December 10, 2008
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
2. The plight of the wretched of the earth – our tribals prominently among them –
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
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
Tuesday, December 02, 2008
Thursday, November 27, 2008
Tuesday, November 25, 2008
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
‘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
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
P.S., Nov. 15: There are only 47 days left before the poll closes!
Sunday, November 09, 2008
Wednesday, November 05, 2008
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
Sunday, October 26, 2008
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
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
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
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
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
[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 façade 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