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Thursday, April 24, 2008

orkut, anyone?

In the early days of the internet, I began to hear of like-minded people getting together to form networks of cyber-communities where they could share their thoughts, experiences, ideas and ideals. I had imagined that this was a major progressive step, which would greatly compensate for the kind of alienation and loneliness most people (especially quiet and shy and sensitive people) suffer from in contemporary life. Still, although some old boys suggested that I get into orkut (or Facebook, or something like that – such sites are now a dime a dozen) as far back as early 2006, I took the plunge only in February 2007. So it’s been a little more than a year now that I have had an orkut account.

As is my wont, when I do something, I do it as thoroughly and assiduously as I can. I wrote up a fairly detailed profile of myself, started my own community, logged on at least twice every day except when I was travelling or in hospital, visited several hundred communities, read up more than a thousand individual profiles, answered several thousand scraps, provided a link to my blog, started a few polls to find out what people were thinking… so now, when I sit back to retrospect, readers may be assured that I know what I am talking about, because I have done my homework.

On the plus-side, I have been able to get back in touch with a lot of folks, especially ex-students who are now scattered all over India and the world. Many of them sound glad about it, too. I have about 225 friends on orkut right now (the number keeps changing slightly every now and then, because some people drop off without notice, and some new people join up). Till date I think I have invited only three to become my friends here: all the rest requested to join. If I had not rejected numerous requests, that number would have been more than 500 by now. Of late I have become more finicky about adding to that list of friends, but more about that later. My community has grown to 150-plus members, and some people take part intelligently and frequently in the various debates on the forum – so that’s some cause for satisfaction too. Alas, this list of plus-es ends right here!

On the other hand, my grouches are far more numerous. Let me list them here for my own satisfaction:

1. As the demographics will show, the overwhelming majority of orkut members are very young: teenagers (including under-18s!) or people in their 20s. I would have had no problems with that – as a rule I have always enjoyed the company of the young – but for two factors: a near-total absence of grown-up people makes the discussions and interests very narrow and often juvenile, and alas, most young members seem to believe that orkut is meant only for sharing silly and vulgar jokes or scrapping your friends ‘hey … wassup?’ over and over again, and they all write wretchedly wrong and caricatured English (even those who I know are quite capable of doing better) under the illusion that that makes them ‘cool’, or that it is somehow necessary to stay on orkut!
2. Thousands of communities, so many of them dedicated to (or named after) great and clever men and women, or important issues – Sri Ramakrishna or Einstein or Harry Potter or nuclear physics or some favourite teacher or school – but they all peter out within a few weeks of launching, or degenerate into sharing advertisements about free wallpaper- and ringtone-downloads, or videos of some bimbo bathing! Apparently the typical orkuter holds one conviction very strongly: nothing must give his friends the idea that he is a knowledgeable person interested in sharing interesting and intelligent thoughts!
3. The typical orkuter also suffers from a massive inferiority complex, so she even saves all her scraps as a kind of trophy: see, she seems to be saying to the world, I have 17,563 scraps; am I not important? And if you look into the contents of all those scraps, …!
4. Nobody obeys basic rules, such as not posting obscene pictures, and despite all those warnings, the administrators do virtually nothing to discourage all the riffraff, fearing, I suppose, that the riffraff form such a huge majority of members that if they are all thrown out, the site won’t survive! Says something both about young mankind today as well as about Google’s pathetic desperation to make money at any cost, doesn’t it? Sergey Brin and Larry Page might make as many billions as they like, but I cannot respect them any longer. As I often tell my daughter, I won’t model in my underwear despite knowing that models are paid much more than teachers: that reflects a certain social sickness (like paying cricketers far more than soldiers, firemen, nurses, policemen and judges), with which I cannot compromise and still dare to call myself a gentleman.
5. Alas, so crude has orkut’s image become (and fear of addiction to it) that I can see even a lot of young people – nice, informed, clever people – are getting off, or refusing to join. The result is obvious: the density of vulgar and confused pinheads keeps increasing every day!
6. As I noted before, a lot of orkuters use the facility merely to send abusive scraps to folks like me. The only thing that achieves, of course, is that I get to know what sort of people they are, and instantly transfer them to my 'ignore user' list: you should see how big that list has become.
7. Most people who send me requests to join either cannot read, or don’t bother to: otherwise, given the contents of my profile, why should they send requests without the little self-introduction I have explicitly asked for? I have made a habit of rejecting such requests out of hand: on some days, I reject four or five at once.
8. From the profiles of hundreds of people, I have found a few common and highly distressing facts: lots of folks are absolutely clueless or incoherent about themselves! Either they write ‘I am cool, fun and sexy…’ (people call me rude and arrogant, yet I should die of shame to praise myself like that, and in slangy language too!), or rubbish like ‘it’s for you to find out’, or they simply copy and paste something that some poet wrote, imagining that that should serve as a self-description!... and all these are supposed to be educated people; they would get very angry if they were called ignorant and foolish!
9. I am still on orkut for two reasons only: to draw people’s attention to this blog, and for the sake of running my community, ‘The Good Life!’ (you will notice that I am not a member of any other community: I joined a few and quickly left out of disgust). Even the 150-odd membership strength of my community is highly misleading, because hardly a dozen participate regularly. If I am still on orkut despite all these grouches, it is because more than a hundred people have let me know that they visit my community (and/or read my blog) with keen interest even if they don’t – or cannot – write in, and a few good people have told me that if that many people are paying attention in a sustained manner even in this distracted and frenzied age, I should not suddenly go off the air.

But this much is for sure: the day I find there’s a better alternative to orkut, I am going to quit for good. Orkut’s been on the whole a big disappointment. Given the marvellous technology behind it, I guess it only bears out the Dalai Lama’s ironic observation about all of us living in an age when we have wonderful things to communicate with, and nothing to communicate!

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Hunger, tycoons and little girls

A lot of ‘educated’ people (including, I fear, most of those who read this blog) will be surprised to hear that one of the most serious things that have been happening in the world lately is not the launch of some new video game or the defeat of Tiger Woods or some celebrity’s wardrobe malfunction or the inaugural preparations for the Beijing Olympics but that food prices (especially those of staple foodgrains like rice) have skyrocketed, causing alarm bells to start ringing in the highest places (not the sort of places where only Paris Hilton, BMWs and Louis Vuitton-type labels matter, though). Robert Zoellick, President of the World Bank, has warned that more than 100 million people have been lately pushed down to starvation levels (that would include many tens of millions in India, it goes without saying, though the food riots have not yet started in this country). He has scorned the piffling and callous charitable efforts of world leaders, and asked them to ‘put their money where they mouths are’ (this was reported in The Telegraph from Kolkata on April 15: see page 3). Anyone who wishes to read up a bit on the dimensions of the crisis can click on the following link:


Wonder of wonders, who should be among the first to respond positively (even if no more than with a token) but George W. Bush, President of the United States, who has at once sanctioned $200 million out of a special food aid fund to help out the Third World countries most urgently in need. The UN’s World Food Programme has declared it needs a minimum of $500 million by May 1 to carry out its emergency-aid plan successfully. To put these figures in perspective, compare with the billion-dollar jewellery that the wives of a hundred tycoons together wear at any major party in any big metro in the world, the several billion dollars that Anil Ambani recently raised from the Indian share market in one day, and the nearly trillion dollars that the five richest countries of the world spend together on ‘defending’ themselves against one another every year (one billion is a thousand million, a trillion is a thousand billion). Tells us something about mankind, doesn’t it? Incidentally, my reading of history assures me that things were exactly like that when famines loomed in the time of the Buddha 2,500 years ago (read Tagore’s poem called Nagarlakshmi), and even as recently as in 1943 in India. Food for thought, for those who insist on believing there’s been a lot of ‘progress’ all around us. Obsessing with fashion, thrills and technology, especially when one and one’s parents have never known genuine deprivation, and feel quite sure they never will, is very conducive to forgetting the more unpleasant things about reality (this is in connection with my last post about really looking at the world). As some of my favourite pupils will understand, this is one of the major reasons why I look askance at studying science – at least, as we understand studying science in India. Of course, agronomy and public health engineering are important branches of science too, but only relatively poor performers go for them under compulsion, don’t they? The elite study computers and management. And they don’t waste time thinking about famines; famines don’t happen to ‘people like us’. Only, they get terribly upset if someone in their families accidentally gets killed or kidnapped by terrorists fighting for the least privileged – ‘why on earth should these wretched criminals target innocent people like us? What is the government doing? Shoot all the vermin!’ There has never been a bigger crime than a hungry man raising a fist or a gun against the most privileged (many of whom have never done a day’s honest work in their lives – think of Paris Hilton again, or even a typical government clerk grown fat on bribes and his even fatter wife and children, or the cybercoolie in Bangalore who spends more than half the day either on orkut or in a pub).

I hope some readers will realize I am not changing the context when I mention that I was thrilled when my daughter told me to read a story she had liked in a comic-strip book. The story is about a little girl in rural Karnataka who lived with her grandparents. Her grandmother, a hardworking, simple, god-fearing, traditional housewife, loved to hear the girl reading out a serialized story in a certain magazine, and waited with bated breath for the next instalment. Once the girl happened to be away from home for a few days; she returned to find her grandmother in tears, because she had not been able to read the latest issue of the magazine in her grandchild’s absence, and she was too ashamed to ask any neighbour to read it out for her. She begged her granddaughter to teach her how to read. She proved to be a very eager and diligent pupil despite her advanced age, and in no time at all she was capable of reading her favourite magazine all by herself. The young teacher was delighted and very proud of herself, not least because her grandmother did the unthinkable: touched her feet as the ageless Indian tradition requires the good and diligent student to do to acknowledge the debt that can never be repaid (no question about who is older here; today's parents please note!)

My daughter pointed out to me that the story had been written by Sudha Murthy. And I discovered not only that my 11-year old daughter had liked the story enough to draw my attention to it, but she knew quite a bit about Sudha Murthy too (which is more than what most of my ‘good students’ in class 10 and 12 can boast of): that she is not merely N. R. Narayan Murthy’s wife but a very accomplished scholar, teacher, manager, social worker and writer – a full and admirable woman in her own right, not merely a useless, expensive and vain ornament as most rich men’s wives are. We had a talk about the sort of people who ought to be respected, with or without money, and she seemed to understand perfectly well my lament that the real trouble with the world is that most of the money in the world is in the hands of the wrong people. I am beginning to have some hopes for my daughter. And I hope also that I have been able to hint at why famine-like situations should develop in a world of apparent plenty, and what sort of mindsets (rather than capital, technology and media gimmicks) are needed in large numbers in order to make a difference for the better.

(P.S., April 18: After reading the above post, Rajdeep, from Nagoya, Japan, sent in the following relevant and highly interesting link: http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1725975,00.html

Thanks, Rajdeep.

April 19: By the way, doing a Google search with the keywords 'current world food crisis' will yield very interesting results!)

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Look, for heaven's sake LOOK!

God gives men diverse opportunities to look at the world. Yet most of us sleepwalk through life, not noticing anything at all (though Robert Fulghum has declared in All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten that the most important word in the dictionary is LOOK!) You can test this by giving some people that childhood memory game, asking them to stare at a trayful of odds and ends for half a minute and then to write down as many items they can remember, or you can ask a companion who has walked down a busy road with you to describe in detail the looks and manners of some people she has noticed.

Unmindful as most of us are by birth, we are trained, in the name of education, to narrow our sights as we grow up, and take interest in fewer and fewer things. I can see this among the youngsters I deal with all the time: some of them were very clever and observant when I talked or played with them while they were in primary school, but already, by the time they get into my tuitions at the fag end of secondary school, they have become mentally deaf and dumb: waiting to scribble whatever notes their tutors dictate without critical examination and understanding, without question, to be crammed for examinations, for the sake of the all-important marks (these days parents can kill for marks, leave alone plead and bribe) and promptly forgotten. Oh, there were sluggish dullards in our time too, and I remember many such classmates, but it has spread like an epidemic over this last quarter century, so that even the ‘first boys’ I tutor these days are almost without exception devoid of curiosity and any real interest in anything at all – not even good literature, or good cinema, or even girls, for God’s sake (beyond the kind of interest that dogs take in bitches in the mating season, that is). I am not looking for a Sherlock Holmes or Bibhutibhushan’s Apu in every teenager, but to have to deal with anesthetized idiots day in, day out does take its toll as the years roll by. And just how dull these creatures have become can be checked out by anybody who is ready to take the trouble to compare the kinds of essays first boys wrote in my day with the stuff that they write now: I have been storing the best for more than 35 years – a large chunk of them a bequest from my old revered schoolteacher.

Even worse, children in the urban ‘educated’ middle class that I live in are being systematically trained to ignore all aspects of reality that don’t fit in with the rosy (and absurd) dreams that they hanker for. So they are always talking of billionaires (though their dads might earn beggarly salaries, and they don’t have the foggiest notion how hard a man must work, and how long, to make a few lakhs a year by strictly honest means) and burning with envy at people who zoom around on fancy motorbikes and flaunt snazzy cellphones, they drool over the glamour of a Shah Rukh Khan or a Sachin Tendulkar, and swoon over the fact that India (with 300 million plus living in absolutely wretched and hopeless poverty!) is adding half a dozen dollar billionaires every year – and at the same time imagining that becoming a Rs. 30-50,000 a month doctor or engineer means success and fame, happily oblivious of the fact that mere home-based private tutors like me make far more than that, and it is those doctors and engineers who queue up at our doors, and not the other way round! People see with their minds, not their eyes: what the mind screens out the eyes do not see.

These creatures can’t even see the plight, the drudgery, and the quiet heroism of countless people around them who are above the poverty line, but who slog night and day at very harsh, thankless and humiliating jobs night and day to keep their families heads above the water. There are at least 5 to 6 hundred million honest, nice and humble Indians who eke out a living like that: rickshaw pullers whose wives work as domestic helps, bus conductors, postmen, petty shopkeepers, small farmers, government clerks and police constables, private tutors (especially those who teach music or painting and suchlike) who have not seen spectacular financial success, door to door salesmen and women hawking everything from vacuum cleaners to insurance to packets of joss sticks, icecream vendors and phuchkawallahs … I could go on adding to the list forever. Somehow there has been established a silent but rigid middle class consensus that these people are not quite human, so they don’t deserve to be accorded the minimum human dignity, courtesy and sympathy. People slam doors on their faces when they come soliciting custom in the blazing midday heat of summer, their children learn from them to address rickshawpullers and greengrocers their fathers’ age with the Bengali pejorative tui, neither parents nor children ever pause to think that but for the grace of God they might have joined the ranks of those poor unfortunates, that such people might be as human characters far better than they (in terms of courage, kindness, honesty and philosophical maturity – as I have discovered by hobnobbing with a lot of maidservants and coolies and itinerant hawkers), and it never occurs to them that just because they are married to, or born of, successful doctors or low-level public sector employees with fairly fat paycheques and little work and responsibility, it does not give them the moral right to treat their hardworking fellow-men as scum, especially in an avowedly democratic country with a socialistic ideal enshrined in her Constitution! So stupid and vulgar are millions of my fellow middle class Indians that it never strikes them that if all those hardworking and hopeless millions had taken to violent crime instead, their lives and property would have been up for grabs, and this society would have dissolved in anarchy.

I could have gone on some more in this vein, but I shall desist after asking all visitors to read two books instead: The Great Indian Middle Class by Pawan Varma, and Everybody loves a good drought by P. Sainath. And maybe look up Barkha Dutt’s articles about some of the less pleasant aspects of contemporary Indian reality in The Hindusthan Times. That's a young woman I respect, and it is one of my greatest regrets that I could never sufficiently inspire any of my students, male or female, to become half as socially valuable.