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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.


Sudipto Basu said...

Absolutely right, Sir. It annoys me no end when middle-class people talk down to the working class. Money speaks, they say. And I concur-- how true! The times have become so bad and cruel (due to our OWN prolonged negligence and apathy!) that a few thousands a month more than the maidservant gives one the right to speak to her as if she is scum. It also amazes me a lot when I hear people cribbing about how such people neglect their work badly. I think, "look who's talking?"; the same bloke, who spends days in his office basically drinking coffee at others' expenses and chatting away, complains about things like the maidservant being lazy, and the country going to the dogs.

Just the other day, you said that you detest this middle-class: people who think it's fine for them to do wrong unless they are themselves at the receiving end of the injustice. It is a strange world indeed-- no one is willing to clean the gutter up, and yet, see how many complaint about the stink!

I have come to a final conclusion-- that I'd rather be poor and honest and live, than become a part of this mindless herd and lose both happiness and individuality. By all parameters, I think that a man like our gatekeeper is a thousand times more respectable than the man upstairs who humiliates him everyday and takes his wife out to Big Bazaar each week!

And talking about people never LOOKing, it reminds me of that classic Holmes-Watson exchange. Most people (like Watson-- who actually is a much more respectable man that the typical middle-class Bengali chap!) never even notice the number of steps they climb up and down. (Also does remind me of that scene in ET where gertie tries telling her mom that she has taught her alien friend to speak!) Thankfully, I still am more than a bit childish-- it has been a (silly!) habit of mine to observe and stare at trivial matters like these right from when I was about five or six. The funny thing is that most people cannot even swear that they are too busy to notice these, you can easily say who's lying then!

Suvro Sarkar said...

Very true, Sir, when you say that the younger generation has stopped taking interest in the finer things of life, being more enamored by the glamour of material things and the "India shining" story being relentlessly fed to them by the media. It is kind of an escapist mentality, where parents and in turn, children, choose to focus on the "positives" - the money, fame, glamour - part of it while conveniently ignoring the "negatives" - the hard work, the support system and the world at large. Thus, their way of looking at things becomes narrow and they lose out all the actual fun in life. And when this leads to treating our janitors and guards like scum, that is when I feel moral and cultural depravity shows its ugliest face.

I think one of the most important things that parents should impart to their children is a sense of respect for every honest, hardworking human being and that can only be done when they themselves do it. Being lucky enough to have been reared in an environment where I've seen and learnt from people around me that money should not be equated with respect and vice versa, I and indeed, a great majority of my friends, have developed great relationships with present day "outcasts" like rickshaw pullers, bus conductors, darwans and the like, over the years. People from childhood like my primary school rickshaw puller Biren-da and Mirabai section guard, Gurung-da still remain special in my memory and I make it a point to visit our local grocer kaku every time I'm home. What people do not understand is by ignoring and mistreating such people; they are gaining absolutely zilch while losing out on the other person's respect, friendship and love. And an entirely different way of looking at life.

I must say that you have indeed met a lot of parents who are doing no good for their children, because I had a more positive and naive view of how it all actually is. Probably because middle class parents in our times did not have fat paycheques, snazzy cars or A/Cs in bedrooms and were proud engineers from an era when mechanical and civil engineering was more in demand than electronics and computer science, and they did work very hard with no apparent reward or recognition. Probably the lack of huge disparity in income and effort as we are wont to see these days instilled in them the respect for honest work that parents of today's easy-money generation have not come to appreciate.

However, there are pockets of resistance and I take heart from these and believe all is not lost. One of the most revered traditions during the much reviled "ragging" in IIT Kharagpur's most notorious Hall is that even before you know the names of all your batchmates and seniors (which you must, within 2 weeks) you must know the names of all the mess-workers, janitors, gardeners, shop-owners of the Hall and you cannot just call them by the ubiquitous "dada" - instead you have to prefix their name before the "da" while requesting for the extra rice or daal - give them their due respect as human beings because your seniors and batchmates will come and go, but it is these people who will keep the Hall running. Well some people do scoff at this tradition every year - but they would be the same people who would not help the coolie raise the heavy suitcase over his shoulder and haggle for the last 10 rupees with him. May they get well soon!

Rajdeep said...

A post only as observant a person as Suvro da could have come up with!

Tanmoy said...

Dear Suvroda,

Very apt writing as always. You are perfectly right. Not just you, but I also see a tremendous degradation among youth over time. I can sense it much more in a city like Delhi. If in a city identity is largely governed by the amount of money ones father has, then perhaps I should not expect a lot out of the same!

Problem is despite having internet at their disposal these days which we did not have when we were young, still I find misinformed and mindless youth. It is a misconception though that they shine in profession. Yes some of them are temporarily doing but I strongly believe those whose senses are still alive, the long run shall belong to them.

Like you said learning comes through "looking", "observing" and then accumulating. I think most people try and take the easier route to success that is why they prefer not to spend that time - which to my find is foolish.



PS: Though I shall differ on Barkha Dutt. If one considers just her journalistic and writing abilities then yes she is one of the best. Having said that, I don't think she is a very honest person. I shall let you know the details later but not on the public forum.

Navin said...

Of course I agree with most of what you say in your last post, its just that I disagree with a line of thought which you have shown in many of your posts.

Dear Sir,
with due respect and humility, I suggest that you need a larger canvas to paint your colors. As you are becoming older and older I can see that your body of knowledge is increasing, so is your non-triviality and you are increasingly finding it difficult to appreciate the achievements of this current generation, especially if they are high school students. I think you might be pleasantly surprised when you interact mostly with people studying in undergraduate colleges. This I am saying, being supremely aware of the fact that you are probably best qualified to judge and understand children/students even adults, having done it for so many years.
Well I have been meaning to say this to you for a long time, as I have been noticing a disenchantment in you for the generations belonging to the last 25 years, and I get to hear this from many older people. I do not agree with your assessment of the decay in the youth of today, and that I say because I feel it, not because I have some well studied and analysed data on these things. I would be happy to hear or know about that, if you have any. So here are my points.

1) First we would have to agree on eliminating any extremal(nobel laureates / great sportsmen) points in our data set from any generation, because I think there are never dependent on their generation.

2)I have really seen the moral fibre grow in this country with our generation. An example is how government offices work today. I remember, as a child going to various banks and offices and seeing the abject disrespect for any work ethics. Instead what I saw was a person pontificating about trivialities to a group of other seemingly useless people. What was worse was the absolute lack of guilt involved in the process. When I grew older and dealt with government offices, I saw work getting done(my passport came in 30 days, compared to my brothers' who was older to me by 10 years, which took 3 months) much faster, even though things like corruption are as rampant today as before. However I see people at least trying to be busy, and at the least they display some guilt when they do not work, and I think it is not really due to fear of the stick. A customer these days can demand work to be done from government offices. As kids, we rarely used to find engineers on any of the numerous SAIL tours that we went on, I am not sure about the situation now.
2) I know of several engineer uncles from a plethora of top engineering colleges, sending their kids to learn simple unitary method from failed engineers who for the lack of a better job, and in utter frustration chose to become school teachers. More importantly, I was absolutely stunned at their language comprehension capabilities. How can a person who has read engineering books in English, find writing a 3 sentence letter to the municipality a gargantuan task.And please note that I am not even demanding correct English from them, it is just the fear of that language in them that appals me . I am sure that, that generation of engineers found some other means of passing their exams and I see absolutely no feeling of guilt in them. In my generation, I do see many people who are incompetent, but at least they seem to show some guilt when they are not working and a willingness to fight their weaknesses. These days even the less advantaged sections of the society have the courage to step up and speak in English. I know many such examples working in the BPO industry. They really are bad at it, but at least they exhibit some courage and they improve with time.

3) Addressing a more specific point of achievers, I have to say, that I find more quality people in non mainstream professions then I do in older times. In almost every undergraduate college in Delhi, you have a couple of guys trying to open up a venture of their own, and that spirit was clearly lacking in the older generation, just because all they needed to get settled in life was a college degree. The fact that you are earning more as a consultant is testament to the fact that kids and parents are probably more open-minded about taking help from professionals, quite unlike the know all attitude shown by people of older generations. Most people of my fathers' generation would have scoffed at the idea of talking to a consultant for seeming "trivial matters" like " "career options" . That change of attitude is quite visible in the way we play cricket these days. In the previous generation all I see is cricketers not even showing the gumption of trying to win test matches from clearly winnable circumstances. All their emphasis was on enforcing draws, and it was mostly a one man show. That attitude is perceivably different today. Even a 7th down batsman comes in a tries to stick it in, and I am sure even statistically, I would win the argument in this case. We really never had any top batsman(May be Gundappa Vishwanath was an exception) who displayed the courage to try out hook shots in that generation of cricketers. *In my opinion, that was a spineless generation.*
4) As a matter of fact I know no body who got a bachelor's degree in the 60's/70's/early 80/s and who didn't land a "supposedly cushy " government job. There was absolute decay in the scientific culture of Indian universities, Government research labs etc. etc. in that era and unfortunately the generation belonging to the late 80's early 90's had to pay the price for it. I label it as the lost generation when it was no longer easy to get a job
just by getting a degree and they also missed out on the software boom. As a kid I used to think that life is easy, all you have to do is to get a degree and then live life like most of the uncles I used to see around me. The only difficult part after that would be to ensure that your kids are reared up well and you can bunk as much office as you need to, to achieve that goal. As of now I am 27 and still trying to get a hold of my profession(research) and I know from my friends that I am not the only one in this phase. Most of our parents had 2 kids by the time most people in my generation feel comfortable, even starting to think about starting a family.getting settled
in life is probably much harder these days.

5) I also think that scientific achievements coming out of Indians has been exponentially more in the 90s and the current decade compared to the decades of 60's 70's and 80's. There were of course many achievements before that.( at least I think that holds true for computer science and mathematics)

6) Look at the quality of movies made these days as opposed to the movies made in 70's and 80's except for some exceptions like hrishikesh mukherjee/ satyajit ray etc. etc. And more importantly, you have movies like Khosla ka Ghosla getting at least some commercial success. That goes on to show how people of this generation have a classier sense of humor, as opposed to fat comedians of that era, who had to speak funny or look funny to be funny.

I can go on and on about this, but I think I have communicated my point well enough and so I will stop here. I think you have just a more adventurous/ethically correct common middle class man today, then you had 25 years ago. Also while sending you this email, I am aware of the fact that all my points are just "feelings" as they are not backed by solid stats/arguments and all you can at the most do is disagree with them, but then if there would be logic to these things, then I guess both of us would agree on the same points.


Navin said...

partially agreeing with tanmoy on Barkha datta, I think she is one of the most sensationalist "famous" journalist of our times, the other one being none other than the pathetic rajdeep sardesai. In fact I have serious issues with the way communication and journalism is taught in mainstream universities at least in the US(both of them studied at columbia), and I have Chomsky on my side on this. As he says, you have to be an "ist" before you are a journalist. That 'ist' can either be a communist or a feminist or any other ist which you can come up with. You work in caucuses in main stream US universities arts departments, and I am really wary of people studying in these disciplines, though I have to accept that some of them really do write thought provoking articles and I can see that how Journalism is justified as an independent discipline.
I for one have never seen anything non-trivial coming out of barkha dutt, In fact an article on how the urban indian is pissed of at the rural indian like mayawati gaining power, pisses me of till no end. That has no content, no idea communicated in that. In fact people like barkha dutt are no more non trivial than typical ad films directors of US , who show sensitivity in a human beings by just showing them playing with small kids.
However, I do have to accept that she is more usefull than many of us and I will proud if I someday become
half as usefull as her in our society.

Anshu Singh said...

Just by writing the words does not and will never make us what we want to become, in the deepest of our hearts.
There are people who are also silently and honestly trying to resist the "norms" of this "society" - we are all responsible for what it is today- for the better.
These silent workers have a compassion towards all (rich or poor- both have their own dogmas).There has to be a common link among all and we have to constantly work towards finding that "link" all by ourselves with a knowledge that though it is an individual effort on the surface of the ocean but deep down it's more of a collective thing.
What are the true qualities of MAN?
Let everyone find it out by themselves. everybody knows or let me put it in this way "Can Wisdom Be Imparted By Talking?"
I can firmly say that the answer is NO.
It has to be followed by the enlightened person without even thinking whether others are following it or not.That's what it is.
Barkha Dutt, i just hope that she is of some help for at least one person instead of the a whole million of people inhabiting this great land of ours.
Hope and faith has not died in me as of yet.
Mr. Praveen Mahajan is teaching English to his cellmates.
Don't know if he has some ulterior motive involved or not but Still i have faith in HIM as proclaimed by great sages of all ages.
I haven't seen HIM yet but i have blind faith in what they said.
I think i can accept that with humility and belief.
Whether a person does not offer another "working" class a glass of water is not the question. The main question is whether you are or not?
No need to answer this question to anybody but to ourselves.
My Warm Regards,

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Thanks for all the thoughtful comments that have poured in so quickly. I hope many more will follow. In the hope of triggering off a good debate, I shall for now draw attention to just two things:

1) Notice how, though both Suvro and Navin have commented cogently and intelligently, they hold very sharply different views about what the older generation was like!

2) While at a very elevated level I hold with Anshu that talking is futile (which is why I do not socialise!), what should a teacher like me, with no other tool/instrument/weapon at my disposal, do otherwise? ... And will some old boys chip in to tell me whether or not all my talking over all these years has been quite futile?

Anshu Singh said...

Talking is a very good quality Sir.
You need not ask anybody for confirmation. I was merely trying to show another point of view.
Remember What did Socrates use to do!!
Please do take it as an another point of view.
I know that you know, after all these years of dedicated teaching, that sometimes a friendly criticism is very good.

Talking is the first step towards something more higher.
And please do not ask your pupils to tell you that you have done a good work.You already know that don't you?

Warm Regards,
Anshu Singh

Suvro Sarkar said...

I think I'll have to agree with Navin when he says that the middle class generation of the last 25 years is more adventurous than the middle class passing out of college in the 60s/70s/early 80s. That adventurism, fuelled partly by the liberal economic policies from the early 90s, has led us to try out new gadgets and new experiences; has led us to save less and spend more; has led us to experiment with every "global" trait that we could lay our hands upon. True, that has led us to attempt to speak English in any sort of we can, import any kind of technology we can, copy-paste any kind of software code we can and reverse engineer any car we can isntead of being content with cushy public sector/government jobs.

The above is an over-cynical approach, of course, and its very true that more students these days think about entrepreneurial ventures than ever before. And why is that? Because they have the basic financial security to back them up - because their fathers accepted the cushy jobs right? So I don't think its fair to squarely put the blame for non-adventurism and lack of courage on one generation because you cannot really think of a start-up when you have parents (who might even have migrated from Bangladesh/ Lahore without a job) and wife (from an early marriage) to support.

However, Navin, I beg to differ when you say today's generation is more ethically correct. I haven't seen too many examples of that; on the contrary, I have seen the newfound confidence of the middle class giving rise to a general impatience, ill placed bravado, and unwanted aggression that wasn't there in previous generations. Again, as you say, I am aware that these are just feelings based on observation and not data.

And yet, I agree with Anshu that I still have hope and faith, though I would like to rephrase one of your questions as "Can Wisdom Be Imparted Only By Talking?" - perhaps no, but it surely is one way our teachers can make an honest attempt!

Sayan said...

One thing I can say about talking or writing is that it is the starting point of all progress or revolution (of the mind). George Orwell puts it nicely in the book 1984: "Freedom is the freedom to say two plus two equals four; if that is granted all else follows". If people can be made aware that 'there is truth and there is untruth', that one must reason and discern things rather than follow the herd mindlessly, that one must discover for himself what he wants, that there is a value in respect and it must be given to people who deserve it (the criterion being, as Sir says, courage, honesty, humility and philosophical maturity and not on the basis of money or office), that living means a continuous striving towards perfection, towards truth, that one must study, think long and hard, carry out serious fact-finding before coming to an opinion; the rest will find it’s way or at least one hopes it will. That is the essence of Sir’s writings and as far as I am concerned, the specifics as to whether it was a cuckoo or a sparrow are unimportant. For it one starts examining those with any seriousness (I am not saying that one shouldn’t: this is just my point of view) one is bound to be led astray from the main topic. Sir’s writings work for me at least; they remind me of what to do and what not to do; I haven’t been able to extinguish my own primitive urges and hence I use Sir’s writings as a sort of leash and that I hope keeps me steady and makes me introspect long and hard before reaching any conclusion. I am a weak-minded person and I always feel the downward tug of the majority pulling me down; hence a support such as Sir’s blog comes in handy.
Not all our paths are the same. Sir has his own way and I hope I will have my own; but as long as the intentions are true what difference does it make?
I will not go into the debate as to whether the previous generation was better or worse but only remark that I have sensed a lack of patience and a fear psyche in my own (maybe these vices were prevalent in the previous generation maybe not: but that to me is not the question) and I do not believe for a moment that any nation can achieve either freedom or democracy where there is fear.
Lastly I will agree with Anshu Singh that talking is a step towards something higher. It is in short a sort of reaching out to the silence that pervades the universe.
Sayan Datta.

Navin said...

HI suvro,
I used to have the same opinion but I changed after meeting fellow students from Eastern European countries in USA. Lack of opportunities and wife to feed and migration look like excuses, when you see a family of 20 in the late 50's surviving on rats, spending 10 nights at a stretch in a jungle in the coldest winter and 20 years down the lane become engineers of repute, scientists in the top institutes and above all morally correct people. I am sorry to say, but I do not find any difficulties faced by post-independence middle class indians anything compared to difficulties faced by post 2nd world war war europe, and mind you they did not compromise on family values and any such thing which indians' often give as a reason for lack of proffessional growth. Power of initiative and courage are your spine and not due to the fact that your parents had given you security to be courageous. In delhi the richest sub community is of punjabies which had migrated from punjab after partition and in seriously pathetic situations. When vvs lakshman asked Sourav as to how he hits those down the track shots, he said at some point you have to back your instinct and go for it. There is always a risk of getting out, but you take that
option and go for it. Most jews have had more migrations in their family history, than the number of times an average indian goes to a temple to pay his repects in his lifetime and lets not even start to think the difficulties faced by jews as a community and look at their achievements in the fields of science, movies and music. Nigeria, doesn;t have money to feed 90% of its people, but they have a football team which rubs shoulders with the best in the world. I can go on and go on about this, but I guess I have coommunicated about this well enough. I sincerely think that the generation of the 60's 70's 80's was the easiest time to have comfortable life in india , if you belong to the middle class of india. Also taking your example, I think I know many bengali families from East bengal who migrated in really pathetic circumstances and today they are as good
as anyone and that is courage, higher morality, perseverance and not anything to do with what you got in this world when you were born. In fact I think, courage, morality is in your spine, and if you do not have a spine, no amount of reasoning is going to make you have those. I genuinely think that the generation of indians in the 60's 70's 80's were the most spineless generation of indians which I have come across. , and I mean it. As for your ethically correct argument, I think anyway the common man is a far inferior animal then the best of the species and if he is not
facing hardships and shifting the blame of his misfortune on others, he is jumping about like well fed monkeys immitating the west and being unethical.
The real deal is in the elitist few and they just exist. I think the number of elites(in my definition,a hard working rickshaw wallah is an elite in my definition) has shown a slight increase in the middle class of today as opposed to that generation of 60's 70's,80,s, even though the number of monkeys has also increased. I clearly care only about elites.

Sayan said...

And as to the question whether 'wisdom can be imparted only by talking'- of course not will be my answer for there is no single foolproof path to it. I think wisdom cannot be imparted at all; one has to make his/her own way . What can be imparted however is the sense that wisdom is important, nay, it is the sole purpose of life; and people can be inspired to make their way to it.
Sayan Datta.

SleepyPea said...

1. Navin I think has made some excellent points, and has quite effectively dealt with even my own earlier sense of rising gloom and despair - so I'd like to thank him first.

2. That said, my take on the rising and ebbing generations is that every generation does find a path of its own. This also implies that there are always individual outliers on either side of the curve.

3. My own splattering of readings of socio-cultural and political changes across two nations: my own, and my adopted - India, and the U.S.A, which share some obvious differences and startling similarities, seem to indicate that nations when they are going through a tide of sweeping changes - India through the period of the Bengal renaissance, enlightenment, partition, and Independence, and the U.S following WW II and during the Beat generation and the radical socio-cultural transformations through the 70s bring out the best in people (and sometimes the worst!). But there is an extreme socio-culturally and politically charged condition which is created, which calls or simply blasts out the best from those individuals who are otherwise average, sensitive, intelligent human beings who would probably have gone onto lead average, good, interesting lives (out of the limelight or in – that’s beside the point). But these individuals interact brilliantly with the environment and they turn out to be leaders, doers, and thinkers and spread the message of mindfulness (in one way or the other).

4. One reason that good students wrote better essays two or three generations ago is because the access to formal education itself was most likely a little more restricted. Students who did well in school back then were most likely students who had a lot of social support within the family – that is the family read or liked to read, there were interesting discussions at the dinner table, elder siblings brought home books to be read by the youngsters – in short there was an environment of ‘sanity’ and ‘sensitivity’ no matter what else and ‘civilisation’ (in the true sense) within these households. I know my own Professor in college (Prasanta Ray) was brilliant, had an excellent grasp of English, had exceptional articulation skills, and could hold almost each and every student mesmerized (if the student was present in class that is!) even if he were talking about Functional Theory. As far as I know he didn’t have a ‘convent educated’ background.
Students who did well weren’t the rich sons and daughters of people who had just gotten out of the rut and had made pots and pans of money.
However, I do not see any reason to despise those who have risen out of the rut through the dint of hard work and many years of striving – be they a shopkeeper or a grocer or a businessman. And it probably takes a generation or two or more for individuals to forget that money by itself means not much without the sensitivity. Of course some folks just have the sense – whether grocer, garbage collector, or tea-shop owner (as I have known some) – and some folks just ‘don’t get it’. Instead of wasting our energy being angry at them – maybe we could take joy in those who ‘do get the finer balance of things’.

I think I’ll keep my comments limited to this for the nonce….yet what you mention Suvro da about how callously young and older folk treat the poorer off in society is truly appalling. It drives me up the wall to see or hear people treating rickshaw drivers or maid servants as though they were less than human. I, personally have found some of my most wonderful (what can I call them but) friends in our maids and some servants and roadside tea-shop owners in Kolkata as well as cigarette shop owners.

And what you point out is razor sharp Suvro da for I have also wondered for long intense days and months and years on the same. Those poor middle class fools (what else can I call them buggers!) do not realise that if these materially deprived folk were ever to band together and simply walk the streets at night every night asking for their rights – the fools would be shivering in their beds! The only reason that the rich and the rest get away with what they have is because the materially deprived folk don’t go and upset the apple cart by challenging the social norms of equity and distributive justice or what-have-you.

Tata for now Suvro da. In conclusion, I strongly feel that Navin and Anshu have some solid points. You of all people should not become disenchanted with the young people of today (even though I completely know where you’re coming from). Even the Dalai Lama is hopeful about the world, for heaven’s sake!
Love and Regards.

Suvro Sarkar said...

Navin, all your points are well accepted and appreciated but to generalise the entire generation as spineless would not be the right conclusion, in my opinion. It is entirely possible that the undergraduate students even in those days were opening up new enterprises or the batsmen playing hook shots but there was no media hooplah about the same. Or it may be that the entire demographics of the middle class, as we know it, has changed.

We might accept that different ommunities, instinctively and genetically, are better at certain things. Thus the Gujaratis of Mumbai and the Marwaris of Kolkata have always done better in business than their local counterparts. Does that mean that the Marathi Manus and the Kolkata Bhodrolok can be generalised as fools? I don't think so. If every nation or every community had the same skills, there would be no need for trade in skilled people and everyone would be self sufficient. Doesn't work that way, does it?

Post-economic liberalization, the opportunities for all communities and sections of society to be seen and heard has greatly improved and the hitherto "elitist" class and the middle class constitution has undergone a sea change. For the better, no doubt, and that's why I feel it is unfair to compare and generalise generations of middle class as such.

That said, I believe the debate here is broader - its not when our outlook became parochial - but how and why. I think it is a shadow of the caste system, only now, the caste is defined on financial lines. People, over the ages, have felt the primitive need to look down upon someone - that gives them the supreme sense of possessing power - and the greed for power, I feel overshadows all. That they can mistreat someone gives them the illusion of wielding power. But if we, in turn, look down in scorn upon these people, we would be stooping to their level. So what we should do, next time we see our neighbour abusing the gatekeeper or his wife msitreating her maid or the kid referring to the local fish-seller as "tui", is to try and enlighten them that a little respect doesn't cost them a penny and the innate power that we all have - of making the world a happier place - is the ultimate power.

Tanmoy said...

Dear All,

Comments that have poured in response to Suvroda's apt post are really thoughtful. Of course with all my optimism I too perhaps belong a bit towards the cynical group. Having said that, one has to agree to some of the points that is made by Navin.

Without going into the fight whether prior generations were better or ours is, I shall like to touch upon a few points:

1. I feel one needs to understand that a country's progress in terms of social development / upliftment can't be gauged in terms of ten year. One has to see how far one has moved in say from independence till to-day.

2. It shall be a myopic to say we did that in 60's and we are doing this is 2000's because the 2000's would not have been possible if 60's were not there. One must in no way disregard whatever one has achieved because very few (even liberalization in 91 did not start from scratch) things started from scratch.

3. To start with, the thing about opportunities. Post independence we were not really in the position of prime as we are now. Whatever we may say now but many good students during that time did not have avenues to look for alternatives - either they did not have access to information or they lacked guide / money. Not necessarily all of them lacked zeal. It is untrue to say every one settled for a cushy job and got satisfied. Pursuing alternative career options based on ones interests was a big enough risk and practical monetary problems did not allow people to venture. One may criticise them but it is not correct to rubbish them. Philosophically it is easier to say they were spineless but I doubt how many amongst us are anything more, when we have tremendous access to information, lot of avenues but percentage of people who are sensible are very few. To give a very small example: Suvroda would not have worried about the fewer number of comments on his blog, when his nearly hundred students know about this space and he wishes all of them to contribute.

I do agree as far as exhibiting entrepreneurial skills are concerned. Indeed initiatives are seen but I do feel our seniors were not backed up by a strong Economic growth or better financial systems as we are seeing to-day. A country in order to provide its citizens the backbone to prosper takes time. We as country because of our policies or population have not been able to do. Passing the buck is the easiest thing to do. It is we - the people who with all our apathy has erected a system and have been eroding it further and it is better we don't put blames. If the older generations did nothing (which I don't agree!) then I doubt whether we are doing adequate.

4. I disagree with Navin even in the cricketing example. Trust me, even if we did not win much perhaps Gavaskar facing the West Indian greats was no mean achievements wherein one could not have measured how fast they were bowling! Sir Viv also acknowleges that.

5. Nation building happens over lot of time. How many of us have the confidence that we shall become like a Sidhujetha (created by Ray) or even Suvroda with so much of diverse knowledge in the time to come.

6. In Kolkata at least, young people used to spend time running to procure a Sunanda's Journal ( used to be published on Desh) despite not having easy access to it. These days with internet reaching homes people spend more time on searching porn perhaps. ( In yesterday's TOI i was reading a fifteen year boy killed his grandmother who was sharing the room with him because in grandmother's presence he could not watch pornography on his computer! Is this new found aggressiveness that we want us to exhibit?)

7. I do not have a pessimistic view about any generations because I prefer to have broad view. I do believe that to-day in order to contribute to social development one has much more means and what a normal youngster is doing perhaps much lesser in terms of the means he has at his disposal. Rather than playing the shifting of burden game why cannot we change / mend the situation.

8. It is wrong to negate the contribution of people who lived earlier. In their own way, they tried their best perhaps like we feel we are doing our best. Trust me I have seen my grandmother - an expert in medicine ( a knowledge acquired through her famous doctor husband) and also literature despite not having proper schooling. I wonder whether we shall ever become the same at a later day.

9.As far seeking counselling. I think many new age parents use them also with a "shifting burden" mindset thesedays so that they don't have to spend time understanding the needs of their child. Is a counsellor a substitute of a parent? Time spent of children is much less in families these days. Life can't be lead following principles laid down in the books. Relationships are built with interactions.

10. In summary, I do believe we need to do much more ourselves, otherwise the issues we have would not ever get resolved, but are we all ready to invest that amount of time to do that? Most of us are professional coolies and we consider success being measured in terms of money we earn! How many of us actually even help our alumni? I know of some primier universities where it does not happen despite we calling ourselves so progressive. It indeed happens internationally!

Therefore, let's promise ourselves that starting with the smallest of things if we can contribute to a change.

Thanks to Suvroda, the issues have been flagged regularly but it is time we act to solve them or suggest ideas. Suvroda leads by example but let's not negate his bigger objective of writing this blog.

Suvroda, your talking has never been futile. I know you for nearly 17 years from now and this relentless talking that you not only helps me but I try to pass on to many other younger people whom you don't know. Having said that, I do feel we have the responsibility to help ourselves to with your guidance.


Sayantani said...

I think the basic flaw lies with the mentality of the people, especially today’s parents. Most of them are over-ambitious, trying to make their children what they failed to become in their own life – here, of course, they understand the term ‘success’ in terms of salary and a superficial concept of comfort.

I was just tracing back to the beginning of it all. Talking of most of the Bengalis, most of today’s parents have gone through the Naxalite period in the 1960’s and 70’s when interested by Communism and politics, a number of youths went astray (or is it “astray”?!). That was a raging period of unemployment. Boys interested in literature, poetry and theatre followed their hearts and emotions, but failed to bring some grains back at home (Mrinal Sen’s Chorus and Calcutta ’71 and Ray’s Pratidwandi depict this period well). Undoubtedly, perhaps, that was the brightest age of creativity. But, most of today’s average middle-class parents (I say, most of! I know there are exceptions still. Greatest example: my own parents!) who must have lived through that age as kids and must have gone through the aches of hungry bellies and the sufferings during that period, ultimately coming to be the pathetic present parents. (Point to be noted: I’m NOT trying to justify the parents. I’m merely pondering upon the reason since both sides should be weighed properly before giving opinions.) They try their best to brainwash their kids into aiming to become either ‘doctors’ or ‘engineers’. Alas, they don’t want to take any ‘risk’! (Well, no risk, no gain! But, who understands this common saying??!) I’ve come across a lot of boys and girls who have the ability to think and LOOK, but the moment they start talking anything that might deviate them from the formula path of the IITs, their parents will make good enough efforts to block their hearts out (a common response : “Oi shob kabyo chorcha-torcha kore kichhu hobe naa… Kobita diye to aar haanri chore naa…”)

But, in recent years, the concept has been more than mere “haanri chora”, the demands and desires are mounting dangerously. The multiplexes and the glittering mansion houses and cars in Hindi movies are making the people more toweringly hungry for money through the shortest and the easiest means, which is what is disastrous for the world. Everyone sits of JEEs these days whether or not they have the knack or potential to become engineers or doctors. And, if they don’t do good in these exams, only then will they go for the ‘general’ colleges. If they don’t get a job as a salesman in a private company, only then will they become teachers. In the process, we find a huge wastage of energy and talent.

As a whole, if we analyse the history, it seems this time just had to come (ah! A pathetically dull time!)and if I’m not very wrong, the future will perhaps see a better age of ‘think’ers and ‘look’ers. May be, it’s the dip of a U-curve… (Why not? If the Indian market which was used to the public-sector produced Lifebuoys can be flooded with hundreds of thousands of private-sector produced – both Indian-made and foreign-made – soaps today; or if the term ‘sex’ or ‘sexy’ can become a word for the common layman today whereas the mere sound of an ‘s’ made the same Indians cover their faces in shame a few years back; I suppose, a change in the outlook regarding following one’s passion and exploring one’s thoughts is not very far… )

Anonymous said...

Oh what a lot of blabbering and blithering. For God's sake , will you all stop and read sir's post - it deals with today , here and now ,period. And you lot have gone down memory lane , as far as east europe, US or as near as Bangladesh. He is simply asking you to widen your horizons - so that when you open your mouth, what comes out is not a load of rubbish. Can you honestly say that you remeber the first rickshaw puller who used to ferry you to primary school and in later years was turned from your house when he came for help? Even researchers from IISc, Bangalore can speak so well on Psychology, economics , law that I had to check the catalogue to be sure that they are the brains behind India's rocket science or astronomy. You have all boasted that you and a majority of your friends give due respect to every hardworking guy you come across. Yeah, who do you think you are fooling?
A small example- recently when I was in Durgapur, on a well earned vacation (actually it was disguised as an inspection trip), I heard the common opinion that Durgapur has become 'soooo... developed' . Well dressed guys and gals are in evidence in The Big Bazaar and other such places in that area. God be damned, has everybody gone mad? While we strive to secure India from her enemies , you are all so happily secure in your respective lives that you talk and only talk . Ever THOUGHT of joining the army or the Civil service, or politics . At this rate the best we can hope is a complete economic takeover by the US. It would serve you right if National Service was made compulsory.

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Dear Anonymous,
Please don't mind, but I can't take in more anonymous comments. Will you please email to tell me just what prevents you from using your real identity? Everyone who does that only wants to hurl senseless abuse at me. That doesn't seem to be your intention at all, so what's the problem?

And a request: what you have said is both right and important, but please don't sound so angry and hurtful. A lot of people who read and write here are quite nice folks, actually, and don't deserve to be hurt. Besides, that kind of writing is bound to raise hackles and lead to a quite futile war of words.

So that's a request to other readers, too: do please read the last anonymous comment thoughtfully, and don't rush off an angry riposte. He is talking sense, even if he is talking roughly.

SleepyPea said...

To the ‘young, angry anonymous commentator’:
1. I can see and feel your anger – but I don’t really see the point that you’re trying to make. Maybe your point is lost in your anger. And believe me I have waited 24 hours before sending in my comments. While I cannot comment for and on behalf of everyone else who has taken the time to write here on Suvro da’s essay – I can and will speak for myself:
2. You say: “For God's sake , will you all stop and read sir's post - it deals with today , here and now, period. And you lot have gone down memory lane , as far as east europe, US or as near as Bangladesh. He is simply asking you to widen your horizons - so that when you open your mouth, what comes out is not a load of rubbish.”
3. History is not linear, and neither are any aspects of human living so unique that contrasts and comparisons can not be made. Any thinking person will make connections between the immediate social space and ‘other social spaces’ separated either by geography or time.
Suvro da himself brings up the difference in the essays between good students of the past and good students of the now. And that is the point of connection – looking into what generational differences do exist either across countries or across time.

4. I do remember the first rickshaw puller who took me to school for about my first couple of weeks. And I remember all of the servants and maids who worked in our house. I do not remember any of them being turned away when they needed help. The one time as a grown up when I did see someone being turned away (for good reasons) – I had offered monetary help.
5. “Even researchers from IISc, Bangalore can speak so well on Psychology, economics , law that I had to check the catalogue to be sure that they are the brains behind India's rocket science or astronomy.”
I am not entirely sure what meaning you intend to convey with this point of yours. What are you saying here? That it is a good thing, a bad thing, or ‘what-thing’?
6. You say: “You have all boasted that you and a majority of your friends give due respect to every hardworking guy you come across. Yeah, who do you think you are fooling?”
I have not boasted about anything. It is something that I have observed. All the other folk who have written here – their intention is not to ‘boast’. Nobody is trying to ‘fool’ anyone. And while I do sympathise with your grouch – I don’t understand why you feel a necessity to fling accusations into the face of those whom you know not.
7. You say: “…I heard the common opinion that Durgapur has become 'soooo... developed' . Well dressed guys and gals are in evidence in The Big Bazaar and other such places in that area. God be damned, has everybody gone mad?”
Nobody on this post (me included), as far as I can see has brought up or even made any mention of “Durgapur being developed”. So I think that your anger regarding the measures of development – while justified – are somewhat irrelevant over here.
8. You say: “While we strive to secure India from her enemies , you are all so happily secure in your respective lives that you talk and only talk.”
For this point I can do no better than remind you of what Suvro da himself, reminded me 5 years ago when I was glumpy and mopey and angry about ‘never doing anything’ worthwhile for my own country, and how all Indians were quite unconcerned. There indeed are people who are doing something (the famous ones as well as the quiet ones) – and there are people who are thinking about the problems and wondering about the solutions – and hopefully up or down the line in another six or seven years they will be contributing – as in terms of social work.
Suvro da’s students – old and new who write on his blog are thinking, and articulating their concerns and worries and their ideas. What makes you think that we “are all so happily secure in (our) respective lives” (that) we ‘talk , talk and only talk’? What do you know of what we are doing apart from articulating our thoughts on Suvro da’s blog? What do you know about me, and what I do? And while I can see where your vehemence and your anger erupts from – what would be your solution? I don’t see you offering any sugestions of constructive action.
Talking, and communicating are some of the first steps (thinking about these issues precedes that) – and some worthwhile actions will hopefully be the outcome. Nothing good has ever come out of rash and hasty actions.
9. While joining the Civil Services, the army, and politics are indeed worthwhile endeavours – teaching, working in NGOs, becoming journalists, becoming lawyers, becoming creative writers, good homemakers (the list is quite long)…are no less worthy. These different professions help maintain the diversity that is also necessary for our planet to function.
10. Lastly, you talk about economic domination of India by the U.S. You needn’t worry on those grounds. With cultural diffusion and diffused cultural imperialism spreading out from the U.S to India – U.S would be silly to try to economically control India any longer. It’s not going to happen – although unless we wake up really fast, India is going to be a bad caricature of the U.S.

I end off with one final point. I, once again see your intense anger. But where are your constructive suggestions?
All the best.

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Dear Anonymous,
See, there's an angry (though still reasonably restrained) retort already!

If you choose to react to it, do sound more articulate, objective and composed than the last time.

And no more anonymous postings: sorry!

Rajdeep said...

I do remember the first rickshaw wala who used to take me to school. I used to jump off the rickshaw and head back for home and he used to catch me midway again and take me to school. His name was Kalu and I used to say 'Hi' to him long after I stopped going on his rickshaw and changed school altogether too. More than a decade out of Durgapur, and having not been there for four years at a stretch has made me lose track of him. And for better or for worse I do not know Durgapur has changed beyond my wildest dreams! But when I went back I went with feelings of nostalgia and longing for the good old place I grew up in. That place is lost for ever and I will never find it, as a child who once born and grown up can never go back to the safety of his or her mother's womb.

Shilpi said...

Quite odd or maybe not. I re-read your post again Suvro da, and I re-read the comments (all of them), and I have to say that the anonymous commentator - no matter how rude and disjointed he sounded - did make a particularly important point.

I have no idea why or how I got lost in the maze of my own "wonderings". But it is rather odd and somewhat ironical too, isn't it? What with your post being titled "Look, for heaven's sake..."

It's the same thing with reading and listening. Even when one thinks one is reading carefully - one reads what one wants to and retains half of what the writer intended to convey. It's only lately that I've realised that I often do the same without even knowing that I'm guilty of such a habit. Sad, rather. And it must be annoying for the writer too...
Take care.

Suvro Chatterjee said...

In the smart B-schools, 'think out of the box' is one of the commonest of glib, 'smart' exhortations. Yet the more I see people of my class, the more I wonder whether they even know what that means, let alone practise it. To take a few examples of how very much inside-the-box thinking our smart set does (with or without MBAs), consider these: your boyfriend must be of the same age, or just one or two years older; you must celebrate cricket, pujo and such other extravaganzas when everyone is doing it; you must get a corporate job to think of yourself as successful, must attend parties to be considered sociable, must have a big house and a car, must keep in touch with the latest fashions, must visit shopping malls and restaurants frequently, must never read books except for exams, must check one's twitter account twenty times a day...

Vaishnavi said...

Dear Sir,

I shall indeed look up the books that you have recommended in this blogpost. That line "people see with their minds, not eyes" reminds me of this wonderful Sidney Poitier movie called A Patch of Blue.

Everyday Sir, I see our next door neighbours' fresh laundry including bloomers taken off the line and ironed by "orderlies", salaried policemen who have been deployed to work at officers' houses, NOT by maids or by themselves. I have seen orderlies do all kinds of menial stuff like polishing the children's school shoes etc., these people are also addresses as 'nee' the Tamil version of 'tui' not just by the Sahib and Memsahib but by their children as well. E

From very early on I made it a point to make friends outside the officers circle because I just could not take the conceit and God complex (unbelievably yes, not only officers (most of whom sady pass the UPSC only to abuse their powers) but their families enjoy an incredibly high dose of God complex as well) everyone around me was exhibiting. A lot of people my age seem to have grown up ignorant of the fact that they are ignorant and that is really pathetic. To speak good English is called "peter" with a small p. It is supposed to convey, shall I call it contempt? at those who are fluent in the language. At the same time though, to stumble through Tamil is also in vogue in spite of many people being perfectly able to read Tamil fluently. Books are a definite waste of time and the amount of ridicule that I have had to endure is quite a lot. Movies are fun, as long as they are strictly commercial. Go the mall, even if you suffocate from the excess of directionless crowd, go to the mall and don't forget to check-in on Facebook. In spite of all this Sir I wonder, of the two evils which is lesser? A boy who frankly admits that he would rather eat mud than read a book outside of school or college or work, might probably ask who Bharathiyar and Charles Dickens were in the same breath, or a girl who pretends to none of the above while being the same? Or are both to be shunned equally? Can honesty in ignorance be appreciated when there is no aspiration of betterment? Actually Sir, I seem to have answered my own question. A lot of the times I have tried to explain the sense of wonder that has been hugely mine and I daresay, every voracious reader's to people who ask me "how can you read so many pages with so many words" but I have never been able to. Either I don't explain well or they don't want to listen and their sole aim of asking me is to ridicule me. They can keep their Rajnikanth and Vijay; I call myself luckier because I can enjoy both Rajnikanth and Vijay as well as a Pilar or Ashu Babu or Professor Mc Gonagall. A LOT of people I know instantly changed their perfectly working iPhone 4S models as soon as iPhone 5 was launched, in many other houses, iPads and Asus Primes are gathering dust. They want Vegas for vacation and "tiger shows" in Kanha. Would they admire the Hoover dam or the beauty of the desert around Vegas or the Rocket tailed Drongo or Serpentine Eagle or the glimpse of a pack of dhole even if the almighty tiger will not show himself? Yet these people can't and won't accept that there is something less ephemeral and infinitely better. A very simple something.