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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.


Tanmoy said...

Dear Suvroda,

First, I must admit that I have not read the book and I don't know if I would be able to sometime soon. Having said that, I do reflect on - what India really needs to dream reasonably of becoming a great nation someday. I have not spent a great amount of time here in Auckland to make a proper judgement (as I said on my latest blogpost!) but I do feel - I draw an initial respect from an international community not just because I am a decent enough professional but because I come from a country which in some way has made its mark. Then why do people like me leave the country? It is mostly because even taking into account we become third or fourth grade citizens outside the respect seems to be much more out here than it is back home in India! Surprising but true! We need to respect eachother in India much more than we do in our daily lives. We have everything to make us a "great" nation but because we don't have respect we provide below par service, we forget our ethos, we feel accomplished with whatever we have without even bothering to better ourselves and we fight on issues which doesn't merit arguments. At times I feel are we Indians by nature too individualistic because, if not then why cannot we progress together? I don't know but yes, it goes beyond technology for sure. To be honest NZ is technologically backward when compared to India (or some other Asian countries) but every Sunday you would see Kiwi families having lunch outside their homes - together under the Sun! I hear they do it for ages. I have not yet put on coloured lenses after reaching here which makes me blind to all that is bad here but yes there are some basic goods which we can easily have in India. Size and population have become lame excuses not to even ensure healthy drinking water, power, non-corrupt officials etc! We need to be honest to ourselves and pick-up the best from everywhere rather becoming critical and picking up the "yea, yup, wassup"! Hardly ever (other than the punks!) speak like that out here.

There is lot to write and perhaps an independence weekend blog post from me shall be needed for that.

(By the way, first time in my life I shall be working on independence day this year)


Suvro Chatterjee said...

As it is everytime I write something about books, there are hardly any comments here - I guess because reading, reflecting and commenting are too taxing for most people's brains. In any case, I am glad that at least one young person has taken the trouble to find the book, read it, and write a decent comment on it - see http://suprawondering.blogspot.com

It might be your good deed on this Independence Day!

SleepyPea said...

Suvro da, Personally, I dare not comment on books when I haven't read them (and I haven't read this one or "Unaccustomed Earth"). Even when I have read a book, I dare not comemnt unless I remember (or don't remember!) the book remarkably well. Even for the books that I've read more than many times (The Little Prince, for instance) - I would only be able to comment on how I "feel" - I never can remember things the way you do. I'm sure all this sounds like an excuse with no legs to stand upon - but it's actually an apology (and a no-leg explanation for not commenting).

Suvro Chatterjee said...

I just heard that when one of my current pupils, a 16-year old, found this book to read, her angry mother snatched it away and forced her to return it unread, on the grounds that she was 'wasting her time'.

Contrast this with the recent news item that Barack Obama and his wife are unhappy that in having to quit Chicago they will have to forgo the weekend family visits to their favourite bookshop.

Of course, today's Bengali urban middle-class mothers alone know what is right and good for their children - who's Obama but a fool? Neither a doctor nor an engineer, only the next President of the United States!

Rashmi Datta said...

Dear Sir,
I have read the book and have something to write about it (even though it is almost four years after you wrote the original post).

Firstly, thank you for this post, Sir. Before reading this post carefully, I had a tendency to form an imbalanced opinion of things- that either something is very good or simply bad. You have taught me to appreciate the good and criticize the bad simultaneously and in a balanced way.
I have also realized that when I read books these days, many things that you have been telling for the past years come back to me and I understand both the contents of the book and what you had told in a clearer manner.

About the book, I enjoyed reading it and have imbibed quite a few things from Sudha Murthy’s anecdotes. As goes the profound saying in Sanskrit- “Mukhe mukhe Saraswati”, she has reminded us that upon thoughtful observation, we can learn a lot from the various people we meet and come in touch with, irrespective of their age, gender, wealth, social background, region etc. As Supra has said in her blogpost, the book is written in a lucid manner making it a smooth, easy and quick read.

The hardworking, optimistic, little boy in Chandipur, Orissa in ‘Bahut kuch hota hai’ has made a lasting impression on my mind. I was reminded that all great things have humble beginnings and that patience and hard work (along with luck) and not greed and childish day dreaming of starting and becoming ‘big’ that makes one successful in one’s endeavours. (You had told this to me when I had asked you what a good businessman should be like.)

The simple yet brave and optimistic house maid in ‘Think positive, be happy’ (and the mashi who works in my home now) have taught me to count my blessings and smile in the face of difficulties.

The Guajarati woman shopkeeper in ‘Treat me as human’ has made me ponder for a very long time. Every woman who cribs to do household chores because she is ‘working’ has a lesson to learn from this illiterate woman.

The stories ‘Salaam Namaste’ and ‘Honesty comes from the heart’ are heartwarming.

From her stories, I have come to know that Sudha Murthy is a thoughtful, intelligent, sensitive, philanthropic and kind woman. She appreciates simple living and believes that women who are obsessed with their looks have an extremely low self worth. She remembers and respects her teachers who have guided her through her life and is grateful to them. She does not identify herself only as Narayan Murthy’s wife and appreciates other women who develop and fight for their own identity and dignity. I have developed a genuine respect and admiration for Mrs. Murthy.

Rashmi Datta said...

But, I too have a few points to crib about-

1. Even after realizing through firsthand experience that numerous ‘bright’ students in schools and colleges actually turn out to be quite dull, vain, dependent, insensitive, cowardly and intellectually empty adults, she still claims to have a great fascination for rank holders.
I had realized that it takes far more hard work and perseverance to be a decent, thoughtful human being than to secure a rank in any examination when I was sixteen.

2. She uses the word ‘friend’ too easily and too often. Given the kind of person she is, it is odd that all kinds of people who haggle for petty sums, envy everyone in this world except their immediate family and continuously give her negative vibes are all her ‘friends’.

3. She is quite positive about the next generation and is very enthusiastic about bringing a change in their attitude. But, from what I have experienced, the kids with earphones in the flight in ‘Forgetting our own history’ would not even remember the name of Rani Laksmi Bai ten minutes later, or even worse bad mouth and make fun of the spontaneous teacher. I have learnt to spend my energy and patience to explain ‘outside syllabus’ topics only to children who show some amount of interest, curiosity and respect.

4. I have found many of Sudha Murthy’s conclusions of her anecdotes vague and superficial. I feel that she cannot connect things like you do, Sir. Like, she treated ‘Alliance Invited’ and ‘Stove bursts or dowry deaths?’ separately but could not see the connection that you explained in the post ‘Liberated Women’.
Also, I do not think the title ‘Idealists at twenty, realists at fourty’ is apt for the story she narrates. I think ‘Courage, the real virtue’ would have been a better title to summarise that story.

I am sorry for this very long and (maybe unnecessarily) detailed comment, Sir.

Thank you for encouraging all of us to read and write more often, Sir.

Warm regards
Rashmi Datta

Suvro Chatterjee said...

First off, a hearty thanks for commenting, Rashmi. Notice that the last comments here were written in late 2008! Speaks volumes about the social milieu we live in, doesn't it?

Secondly, nothing pleases me more than someone commenting thoughtfully on a book I have written about: you couldn't have turned me off if your comment was three times as long!

Thirdly, yes, I know how valid your misgivings are. On many an issue, Ms. Murthy does not quite ring true. It is as if she wants to have the best of both worlds; be admired as hugely 'successful' by current middle-class standards and at the same time be regarded by more serious people as a socially conscious, intelligent and useful person. After all, she has chosen to marry a man who is basically a very very clever body-shopper, and currently aspires to become President of India on that strength alone, tom-tomming his attachment to moral integrity and lofty spiritual standards, yet basically devoted to nothing nobler than money-making all his life! We live in very sick times. Anyway, as I always advise, pick up the wheat and let go of the chaff...