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Sunday, August 24, 2008

'Stay hungry, stay foolish'!

A disturbing thought struck me recently – do people get the impression from my blog that I am a dour, gloomy, irritable sort of person who never smiles and hates to see people smile, and who never talks lightheartedly about not-too-serious things? God forbid. Those who have known me up close are aware that while I do hate people who are frivolous and giggly all the time and have a poor taste in jokes, it would be wrong to think that I am a sourpuss. And, to put it in a great man’s inimitable words, I am not serious only when I am solemn!

Actually, I have found the world so gloomy a place as things are that I have not only tried my best to find all the laughter I could, but tried to share it around with everyone I know. So all my ex-students with good memories will remember, I am sure, how much and how often they laughed in my classes – with me, never at me – even while we were getting serious and important things done. My life and psyche have not been moulded by glum philosophers and moral policemen. Indeed, I have always been partial to the ‘laughing philosophers’, from Jabaali to Socrates to Voltaire and Sri Ramakrishna and Galbraith. And I wouldn’t have been the man I am without a lot of wonderful books of romance in the Treasure Island mould, or without the Charlie Chaplin movies and the P.G. Wodehouse books and all the lovely comic books from around the world, including Tintin and Asterix and what have you. In fact, the more boyish the better (without being crude and silly, of course): I loved Archie and his Riverdale High School gang when I was in high school myself, and, thumbing through a set that a current pupil has kindly left with me, I found that I can enjoy them just as much today, though I am 45 now, with a daughter stepping into teenage, and much white in my beard!

And I have been naughty enough, too: I was never a goody-goody mama’s boy, I have not grown into the kind of man that mama’s boys grow into, and I am proud of it. That makes a lot of people either look askance at me (‘he’s a bad man, beware!’), or imagine that I have never managed to ‘grow up’. Some people, indeed, think that it is possible to be both at the same time.

The fact is that the vast majority of grown-ups made me sick or filled me with contempt even when I was a boy, and that feeling did not change one whit as I grew up myself, and got to know a lot of grown-ups first hand, including a huge number of ‘important’ grown-ups in exalted places (remember I was a journalist once, and visited ministers and corporate honchos and filmstars as a matter of course). I found their ignorance monumental (one old fool asked me in a very patronizing tone when I was 13 which author was my favourite, expecting me to say Enid Blyton I suppose, and when I said ‘Bertrand Russell’, it shut him up for good for the rest of the evening); their conversation banal (hardly anything beyond neighbourhood gossip, petty office politics, chronic diseases, clothes/gizmos they have bought and the marks/salaries being brought home by their children); their prejudices idiotic (if everyone I know is putting his son through the Joint Entrance, I must ensure my son does the same/ if you criticize Indian politics you must be a Pakistan-sympathiser/ if you are a Bengali you must go gaga over cricket and Durga-pujo…); their morals utterly elastic except when they are lecturing their children or subordinates (it’s okay to lech when nobody’s likely to beat you up), their charity and imagination non-existent (cite the example of any great man or woman and they say oder kotha alaada – they’re different), and their tendency to make a virtue of spinelessness for the sake of a ‘safe’ passage through life (the boss is always right) disgusting.

I also learnt that the best of men have been fond of children, and almost childlike in their simplicity and open-mindedness – Tagore was, Einstein was, Steven Spielberg has ascribed his endless fecundity with ideas to the notion that he has never quite managed to grow up (see also what Freud said about children vs. adults: it’s a fixture at the bottom of this blog) – and I was content. I agree with Saint-Exupery (of The Little Prince fame) that grown-ups are as a rule thickheaded: you should never discuss really serious things with them. Which is why I decided long ago that I would rather forever stay in the company of children than grow old with people who will never make me either happy or wise. And lo! I find I haven’t made a bad bargain after all. Most of the people who have not given me their company have done me a favour – judging by all I know of them – and the people whom I deal with remain forever young, fresh, and, relatively speaking, free: people who can perchance still be moulded into a finer shape.

My only sorrow today is that the current flock of youngsters are willy-nilly bracketing me, perhaps out of sheer force of habit, with all the other dry, boring, pretentious oldies they know (maybe I can’t blame them? Both my wife and daughter say that all my classmates whom they happen to see these days talk and act and look as though they could be my uncles!). I wish they’d give me a chance. And my only nightmare is that, despite everything that I can do to keep the doors of their minds open, and the gears whirring busily, most of them ossify into the kind of adults who have gone before them! I cannot tell you how many interesting teenage boys and girls have become conventional dullards before my eyes now that they are in their thirties.

“And so, from hour to hour, we ripe and ripe, and then, from hour to hour we rot and rot/ and thereby hangs a tale”, said Shakespeare. Quite right, too: no one can escape the scythe of the Great Reaper. But why do so many of us grow old so soon by desperately copying everything our elders have done wrong?

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Whither happiness?

Some of us are happy more or less all the time. Some are too busy or unused to thinking to bother about whether they are happy or not. Some brood over it all the time, and cannot figure out why they feel unhappy despite there not being obvious and pressing reasons for unhappiness. Of late I have been interacting with some people who are contemporaries or senior ex-students, and they have all been thinking of this happiness issue – one thing that is common to all of them, I notice, is that they are rather bewildered that they cannot feel happy enough as they reach or approach middle-age, despite having done everything right: becoming engineers and managers, for instance, and then settling in the US, and getting married at the ‘right’ time to the ‘right’ sort of person (as parents and society dictate), and raising children who are not handicapped in any serious way. So they have got me thinking (again, I might add: I did a lot of thinking about it once upon a time).

It may be a good idea to list a few things which, taken together, can, or at least ought to, make us happy – or at least prevent sudden strong bouts of unhappiness. I think that, under normal circumstances (not in Hitler’s Germany or Afghanistan right now), the following list should suffice:

· Sustained good health,
· A good wife and a cheerful hearth,
· An adequate income,
· Enjoying one’s work,
· A few relaxing and enjoyable hobbies,
· A few people who make it known that they are grateful to you for favours received,
· A habit of counting one’s blessings every day,
· Having a few good things to look forward to – such as the coming of grandchildren,
· Keeping company with people who are less fortunate, and avoiding the company of people far richer and snootier,
· Not socializing with people who have nothing to say except share gossip and scandal, and compare their lot with yours,
· Not regretting things that have been (this is really hard! – so many people my age, of both sexes, are finding it so difficult to accept that they are not perky and pretty teenagers any more),
· Knowing that one is leaving behind a few things that will last – such as a successful business, or a book that has become famous, or a pretty garden, or a legion of successful students, or a widely-accepted scientific theory…
· Cultivating two invaluable virtues that the Buddha taught: upeksha (equanimity over good fortune and bad) and mudita (pleasure over the good fortune of others).

You can be just plain lucky, but my opinion is that most of us have to work on all the items listed above. Sustained good health, for instance, depends a great deal on disciplined habits in connection with food, sleep and exercise which most of us avoid until it is too late; and daydreaming about how happy you could have been if you had a good wife is fine, but most of us find it a bitter pill to swallow when it is suggested that how good a wife you get depends a great deal on how good you have tried to be to her! Enjoying your work is not very likely if you are stuck with something that your parents forced you into twenty years ago. And as for having an ‘adequate’ income: remember that unless one learns contentment, a billion dollars a year is sure to keep you unhappy. Most of the unhappy people that I talk to have nice houses if not palaces to live in, at least one car, and go holidaying at least once a year, to Kashmir or Kerala if not to Singapore, Dubai or the French Riviera! And too many of them eat far too much.

One thing that I have definitely learnt is that the ability to draw happiness out of life decreases as one grows richer, at least up to the middle-class level; I meet happy rickshaw-pullers and maidservants far more often than happy doctors, engineers and managers, though the latter freely admit that they are now much better-off than they were in childhood. This certainly needs thinking about. Yet another thing is that most people stay unhappy all their lives because they could never figure out once and for all what exactly they wanted out of life, and what they could easily have done without!

If one is able to put a check beside almost all of the above, and one is still unhappy, one needs to analyse oneself closely to figure out whether it is because one enjoys being that way – one may be a habitual melancholic (dukkhobilashi in Bengali). And if one cannot put a check beside most of them, one needs to ask oneself what one is doing wrong, and what one needs to change to make things better. Change your wife, change your vocation, change your place of residence, change your set of friends – or get rid of friends more or less entirely? … and don’t tell me ‘it’s easier said than done’, because I have made many of those changes in my own life, and am happier for it.

Finally, if you can’t make those changes despite knowing that you should, you are a weak character: you deserve to be unhappy, so stop whining!

Reading (or re-reading) some good books can certainly help. Have you tried Bertrand Russell’s The Conquest of Happiness lately?

[I shall be glad to answer questions on this – though not rhetorical ones, it goes without saying. Many readers have been telling me they don’t ‘dare’ to write comments here. That’s sad, because commenting does not require you to be a know-all: asking questions and sharing experiences is commenting, too!]

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Olympics, Bindra, "yeh dil maange more"!

Like I hope most of my fellow-Indians, I am prouder and happier than I can say that Abhinav Bindra has ended our 108-year long gold-medal drought at the Olympics. I can only wish him the very best of things that life has to offer, along with my thanks and my gratitude.
However (alas, I always think of 'however'!):
1) I wish and pray and daydream that we might get a few more medals yet at Beijing,
2) I rue the fact that we shall probably never (at least in my lifetime) as a nation climb to those dizzying heights where we can be called among the five best sporting nations in the world - and never stop blaming the government for it!
3) One newspaper that I read reported this morning that an sms message currently doing the rounds reads "Abhinav Bindra is the real AB; the rest are all forgettable". Very typically Indian, that: as soon as one of us does something good and great, we need to forget everything that others have done, and we imagine that praising someone requires insulting someone else! (and that saying something like that makes me sound clever - though I might be a complete nonentity in comparison with all the ABs I know...)

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Wise and Otherwise, by Sudha Murty

I had written in an earlier blogpost that I had become smitten with Sudha Murty ever since my daughter bought her little book How I taught my grandmother to read and other stories (for those who might not know, she is not only the wife of IT-tycoon Narayan Murty but a scholar, a teacher, a writer, a social worker and a philanthropist – a most remarkable woman in her own right). I had heard about another book, more ‘for adults’, which several people I like had urged me to try. I have just finished reading Wise and Otherwise: A Salute to Life (revised edition, Penguin India, 2006, Rs. 150). Here is my take on the book. I loved reading it for a variety of reasons, to wit:

· Her great regard for teachers, her enthusiasm as a teacher, and her great sadness that so many teachers are a shame to their professions these days.
· Her insistence, from vivid personal experience (which tally very greatly with my own), that people can be cheats, liars and frauds, and disgustingly greedy and ill-mannered, regardless of whether they are rich or poor.
· …that so many supposedly educated adults like to show off their possessions and attainments so childishly, and even invent them when there’s not enough truth available.
· …that people in our country are so eager to take credit for others’ work, and so loth to give credit where it is due.
· Her assertion that decency and wisdom and courage are far more likely to be found among ‘backward’ people (including women, tribals, children, old men and the very poor) than among the elite and privileged.
· Her love of books, her wide education outside the confines of computer science, in which she has specialized, and her candid admission that programming is no big deal – any intelligent hardworker can pick up a new language in a few months’ time (p. 163)
· Her admiration for charitable people, especially those who give silently, and her joy at having been of some help to some people in great need or distress.
· Her horror about how pitifully women are very often treated in this country, her sadness about the fact that far too many women accept their plight instead of fighting, her praise for those who do fight and change things for themselves and others.
· Her disgust for average ‘society’ women, and her scorn for all mothers who think that mollycoddling their children and being completely blind to the dignity and needs of everybody outside the family is both normal and good.
· Her awareness that her great wealth is a blessing – because regardless of how talented you are and how hard you work, things outside your control (luck if you will) determine how wealthy and famous you will become.
· Her earnestness about wanting to believe that though things are in a bad shape in this country, ‘it is better to light one candle than to curse the darkness’.

That’s twelve items: enough, I am sure, to show that I have begun to like and admire this woman hugely. As she has said herself about someone in her book, I pray that her tribe may increase, and that she may enjoy a very long, healthy, happy life full of the kind of activity she loves. Indeed, I cannot praise her any higher than by saying that I wish I had met and befriended one woman like her in my whole life.

Now that I guess I have earned the right to crib a bit, here goes:

· I find it hard to believe that she, with her level of education and experience, took so long (she claims twenty years) to find out some unpleasant or tragic-comic realities about people in the IT-sector in India. If she isn’t right in the heart of it, who is? How could she have been so blind and so naïve?
· That she had to live to be middle-aged, and go to Sweden physically, to find out that the Scandinavian countries are where women are most respected, safest, and most free. I have known that, merely by reading books, since I was a teenager.
· I wonder how she travels around incognito so easily (as she has claimed she does, again and again…). I am not even remotely as rich and famous as she is, yet I cannot go anywhere in the town where I live without drawing a lot of unwanted attention!
· While agreeing that the old have always complained about how the young are going to the dogs for as long as we can look back in history, I cannot agree with the glowing impression she has sought to convey about how well-informed, clever and wise today’s youngsters are through a conversation that she once supposedly had with her teenage son. Given the kind of extraordinary parents he has, I don’t find it impossible to admit that he might have a very wise head on his shoulders, but – drawing on my 27-year long experience as a teacher myself – I will assert that such a youngster is rare indeed. Far from talking the way he did about such a serious subject (‘what do you think are the three most important revolutions or ideas of the 20th century?’), most young people in their mid-teens whom I coach simply gape foolishly at me or try to make themselves invisible among their friends when I ask them to speak extempore on even such ‘easy’ subjects like ‘my favourite fictional hero’ (it happened this very evening).
· Ms. Murty sounds sunny enough at the beginning as befits the writer who is trying to make her readers think positive and feel good, but her mood grows darker as one ploughs through the book, for indeed, any sensitive, intelligent and caring human being cannot help feeling increasingly tired, frustrated and even sick of all the badness, crudeness, pettiness and shamelessness one encounters at every turn in life in contemporary India (and behind a façade of culture, too!) – no matter how hard and often she tries to remind herself and us that we must never grow blind to whatever little goodness there is. This is especially the lot of people who try to do some good to others merely because they feel compelled to do so. People envy you and curse you even as they greedily take whatever you can give them. In Madam Murty’s case, her great wealth, I suppose, serves both to attract a lot of such bad vibes as well as to cushion her from them somewhat: not being endowed with even a tiny fraction of her wealth, power and fame, I have perforce had to decide to put a rein on the good that I try to do the world, having been cheated and badmouthed by beneficiaries far too often, and constantly to remind myself that even if I do good to anybody, it must be purely for the good of my own soul, not with the remotest expectation of remembrance and gratitude (the reader may care to hark back to my two previous posts, 'Living Selfishly', and 'Living Selfishly, part two')!
· I can empathize very well when she sadly muses on how much vile trash she gets via snail mail and email every day. I wonder, though, why she self-flagellates: surely she can afford one secretary who will just see to it that no garbage reaches Madam’s eyes?
· Considering all the true but nasty things that she has said about a lot of ‘successful’ professional people, the page-three sort of people and politicians, I wonder how popular Madam Murty has made herself, even in the circles in which she and her husband perforce have to move! The book has sold 30,000 copies so far, says the blurb on the back: I wish it might sell a hundred times more. It should be made required reading for all teachers and politicians in this country, and for all parents who claim to be educated.

I could have added a few things, I suppose, but let it go. I have read the book closely, and I would urge all my readers to do the same. And then reflect on what India really needs to dream reasonably of becoming a great nation someday. Madam Murty, at least, is clear enough that merely a bit more of technology and capital and ‘management skills’ won’t do it.

Finally, a word of thanks to Subhanjan Sengupta for making the book available to me. It is nice old boys like him who keep open the mental doors and windows of a lazy home-bird like me.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

How to comment, argue, disagree

I found the following very helpful link on the Net today. It's a great little primer on how civilised argumentative discourse ought to proceed:

I hope all those who wish to comment on my blog would read up that essay first!

Monday, August 04, 2008

Solzhenitsyn, and an obituary

Alexander Solzhenitsyn (of The Gulag Archipelago fame) died yesterday. Here is a link to an obituary that I liked:


Those who are serious readers themselves and know me and broadly agree with my values will, I'm sure, have no difficulty in figuring out why I liked the essay.