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Saturday, February 21, 2009

My orkut community

I had grown disenchanted with orkut long ago (see the post here titled 'orkut, anyone?'), but I feel a little nostalgic about the community called The Good Life! which I had nurtured there for almost two years now. That community is now almost defunct, because virtually all the participants have lost interest in participating - or maybe they just don't have anything to say any more - but some of the discussions were long and substantial, and I don't want to lose them all by deleting the community. I want some suggestions regarding how I can somehow salvage that discussion forum. Can the readers of this blog help?

Friday, February 20, 2009

New blog!

I have just launched another blog. To visit, just click on the link given at the very top of the right-hand sidebar...

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Ingratitude and karma...

If there’s one thing I share with Shakespeare, it’s my hatred and contempt for ingratitude – which is, alas, a very common human failing. Here are a few quotes to show how strongly the Bard felt about it:

I hate ingratitude more in a man
than lying, vainness, babbling, drunkenness,
or any taint of vice whose strong corruption
inhabits our frail blood.
(Twelfth Night)

Blow, blow, thou winter wind,
Thou art not so unkind
As man's ingratitude.
Thy tooth is not so keen,
Because thou art not seen,
Although thy breath be rude...

Freeze, freeze, thou bitter sky,
That dost not bite so nigh
As benefits forgot.
Though thou the waters warp,
Thy sting is not so sharp
As friend remember'd not...
(As you like it)

O, see the monstrousness of man
When he looks out in an ungrateful shape…
(Timon of Athens)

All the stor'd vengeances of Heaven fall
On her ingrateful top!
(King Lear)

Ingratitude, more strong than traitors’ arms,
Quite vanquish’d him,
Then burst his mighty heart…
(Julius Caesar)

The man must have been hurt beyond expression by ingrates again and again for the iron to have entered so deeply in his soul! And if you think that it was only Shakespeare who had a bee in his bonnet about it, try the following link:

It’s not my idiosyncrasy that ingratitude hurts me almost more than anything else: in every land and age, sensitive people have suffered greatly from it.

It doesn’t hurt everybody equally, of course. Some people (and it strikes me as very odd that some people are like that from early childhood – it’s probably in the genes) go out of their way to curry favours, and forget their benefactors promptly, and even malign them right and left behind their backs once they know they cannot expect any more favours; at the same time, they never do anybody any favours if they can help it, unless they are sure of getting back much bigger favours in return, and never let you forget it if ever they did you even the most trifling of good turns, and are endlessly inventive in wriggling out of situations where they have been asked to do something for somebody in need. But there are also people who are simultaneously too proud to ask for favours and very eager to be of help to others when they can sense some need. If they are stoical and saintly, they of course expect nothing, not even gratitude in return, so it doesn’t hurt when those whom they have done good forget them or badmouth them, but alas, most of us (myself certainly) have not learnt to become so saintly and stoical yet, so it feels wonderful when people show by word and deed that they remember old favours, and hurts like the dickens when they cut you dead, or strain themselves to give you a bad name.

And this is where thoughts of karma come into the picture. At my stage of life, having done and seen a lot of things and remembered a lot of things (I am cursed with a long and vivid memory – my own family members have long forgotten hurts they gave me years ago which rankle cruelly still!), I am convinced that it is some people’s bad karma that they can neither stop trying to be nice to others, nor stop hurting that others care so little about it (khel khatam, paisa hazam, they say in India: what is done is forgotten). Lest any reader should think that I am indulging in self-pity over imaginary hurts, let me put on record that my wife, who has been observing my life closely for almost 14 years now, and once upon a time used to say I imagine these things, has come round to the view that I am truly extraordinarily unlucky in this regard. Not only does Murphy’s Law work like an ironclad rule with me (‘if something can go wrong, it will’ – even to the extent of cheques bouncing again and again because some stupid bank clerk could not spell my name right!), but I shall compulsively go on trying to help folks who tell me their sob stories – folks of all ages, from teenage pupils to beggars and businessmen much older than me, and help of all kinds, from lending a shoulder to weep upon to giving shelter to lending money – and end up lamenting a few years later that all my concern and help has produced some more ingrates (these include family, one-time friends, colleagues and numerous ex-students: I hope some of those people I have in mind are reading this, and can make out that I am talking about them)!

I thrill with delight when some people get back with return favours, even if it be something as minor as returning a debt, or giving a small gift, or just dropping in to say hello and put on the nosebag together of an evening for old times’ sake, just to show that they remember and care still. But I cannot tell you how few and far between these joyful experiences are, and how common and frequent the other kind! … among the cruellest are those who averred for years and years how much they loved and admired me, and were thankful for everything I had done for them, and then, one fine morning when it seems to them that I have said something they don’t like to hear, they promptly give the lie to all the nice things they had been saying and cut the line for good – all the ‘love and respect’ vanishing into thin air, as if it never existed. No apologies, no reflection that I might not have been wrong after all, no consideration of how I might deserve a little leeway even if I have been wrong, taking into account all the good things I have done before; no understanding, even, of how grossly they were cheapening themselves in my eyes (and in the eyes of everybody I talk about them to) by making such about-turns: just gone with the wind!

Following my wife’s counsel (‘people will forget or speak badly about you anyway, most of them most of the time, and those who want to do good and speak well will do so regardless of how you treat them, so stop bothering about being nice and good to all and sundry…’) I have of late been trying to become a more cautious person, less overtly willing to be a sucker, more ‘professional’ in dealing with people, much less expectant of goodness in return than before. It goes against the grain, so I cannot say it makes me happy. But at least I have the consolation that I will not have to lament as before that I did so much for people and got no good vibes in return. Meanwhile, the word seems to be going around that I have become much more selfish and hard-hearted than I used to be. I leave it to the reader’s judgment, and to the consciences of all those who know they have not treated me well!

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Of chance, fate and karma

Of late, many things have compelled me to ponder deeply over two things – this thing we call fate or kismet or naseeb or bhagya or karma, and about gratitude and the lack of it.

Watching a brilliant little 2008 Hindi movie called Amir, which is about a young urban professional trying just to live a simple and honest but decent life like millions of others, and believing that he is the maker of his own destiny, who suddenly gets caught up in a very nasty spider’s web of a terrorist conspiracy which manipulates him in the direction of self-destruction totally against his will and utterly beyond his capacity to do anything about it, brought back the question of whether or not it is character or opportunity (luck/fate/kismet) that makes for success in life. This was incidentally the topic for an essay in the ICSE examination some years ago, and for years I have been helping pupils to write sensibly on it (in the way I described in the post titled ‘Moral Science’). I like to speak positively, encouragingly to young people, so I never tell them it’s all written beforehand, or decided by the stars or stuff like that: it would not only be saying something that I can never be sure about, nor fair, because it might depress them and sap them of the will to fight life’s battles boldly, which is so very important. But I cannot help telling them also that character does not decide everything: the most talented and determined and hard-working man can do little more than live an obscure and hard life and die bravely if opportunities do not present themselves for him to exploit. What would Sachin Tendulkar have done if he had been born in China, what would a man with innate high-level software-writing skills have done if he had been born in the middle ages, what handicaps doesn’t a talented man suffer if he is born poor in a backward country? (Ramanujan and R.K. Narayan would never have been heard of beyond their little personal circles if they had not found powerful western patrons…)

I also tell them it is a pernicious doctrine that today’s parents and teachers drill into them night and day, claiming that success is ‘guaranteed’ if only they work long and hard. That’s not only a shameless lie (all those people are old enough to know better) but it only ensures that the inevitable disappointments and frustrations later in life will make those youngsters suffer far more than they need have, because they have not been conditioned from childhood to expect frustration despite deserving many good things by virtue of their talents and labour – the Gita says do your best but don’t count on the results being the way you want them to be, and no modern parent and teacher should claim to know better.

The truth is, no matter how clever and wise we are, no matter how ‘scientific’ our predictive models might have become, there are countless things that happen in everybody’s life, both good and bad, that simply cannot be foreseen and accounted for. No ordinary man who goes out to work knows whether he’s going to be run over by a car today, no mother knows whether her daughter is going to have a happy marriage, no general knows for sure that he is going to win the battle, no film director can say with certainty that his latest oeuvre will sweep the box office, no inventor knows whether his brainchild will make him rich and famous. We can indeed only do our best, and accept what life doles out to us thereafter: this is just as true for examination candidates as for householders and leaders of nations. Of course it is important to do your best, if only so that you do not have to die with a guilty conscience, and of course it is true that far too many people who lament their bad luck will be forced, when the chips are down, to admit that they stopped short of doing their best most of the time – never studied hard enough, never looked for jobs hard enough, never saved when they had enough money, never walked while their paunches were growing, never disciplined their children when there was still time – and so they do not really have any moral right to whine or expect pity and help from their fellow men when they get into trouble (though I have noticed with chagrin that such good-for-nothings usually get far more pity and help than those I have always considered the truly deserving, the fighters, the planners, the folks who have never shirked responsibility … life is not fair at all!)

Even if we do not believe in predestination (and mind you, there’s no definite proof that it is nonsensical), we might be eventually be forced to believe either that everything is blind chance (such a fundamentally ‘unscientific’ idea that Einstein famously retorted that God does not play at dice…, and furthermore, if you believe that, then you are likely to lose all hope that you can make a difference with your own efforts, and therefore elect to give up in despair and withdraw into a shell: I leave it to the reader to imagine what would happen to civilisation if the majority started subscribing to that doctrine!) or in what the Hindus and Buddhists call karma: that you are simply suffering/enjoying the cumulative consequences of your own past deeds, and simultaneously deciding (though not necessarily consciously and deliberately) through your present actions what is going to happen to you in future. But this doctrine poses its own problems: you can see for yourself that a great many nice and even gifted and diligent people are not getting what they deserve in this life, while a lot of utterly undeserving folks (lazy, stupid, ignorant, uncouth, greedy, deceitful, malicious, you name it) are living it up. Ah, the traditional pundits will tell you, that is easily explained, provided you allow that one lives many successive lives, and the accounts are not squared in each lifetime but carried over from one to the next. So a lot of seemingly undeserving people are enjoying this life by spending the good karma accumulated over previous lifetimes, and, if they are living badly, they are darkening their own future life-prospects (which probably ‘explains’ horrors like children without arms and legs being born to poor parents, and little girls being raped, nasty as the explanation is). Now from the utilitarian point of view this is a good theory – or at least better than believing that all is blind chance – in the sense that it gives some consolation to those who suffer (to my mind no pain is greater than not knowing why I am having to suffer), and some encouragement to living a good (in the sense of ethical-) life in the hope that one is improving one’s own prospects with every passing day. It helps me a great deal in both ways, at least, and I have counselled a lot of people to look at life this way and see if it makes them feel somewhat better about living. I am nothing if not a pragmatist: I know what I want out of life, and I shall try anything provided I have reasonable assurance that it works, whether it be a machine, a computer program or a philosophy. But there is one thorny problem left: the Hindus at least believe in a soul which can migrate from one body to another through death and rebirth, but the Buddhists don’t even believe in a soul, and I have not been able to figure out yet how they square that with the theory of karma. Temporary body and no soul, so whose karma is it anyway?

Long post, that, and most readers have very short attention spans. So, about ingratitude, perhaps in the next one. Cheerio!

Wednesday, February 04, 2009


It’s been a very long time since I posted some of my favourite poems here (in fact I have done it only once before; see 'Fafaia'.) 

Here are three at one go.The first, by Robert Frost. It’s called Fire and Ice, and goes like this:

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I have known of desire,
I hold with those who favour fire.
But – if it had to perish twice –
I think I know enough of hate
To think that for destruction ice
Is also great,
And should suffice.

The second, by Walter S. Landor:

I strove with none, for none was worth my strife.
Nature I loved, and next to nature, Art.
I warmed my hands before the fire of life:
It sinks,
And I am ready to depart.

Only the most supremely self-possessed of men can close their accounts so quietly; the worst that life and fate and the fear of death can do cannot break their spirits.

The last one, by Francis Bourdillon:

The Night has a thousand eyes,
And the day but one,
But the light of a whole world dies
When the sun is gone.

The mind has a thousand eyes,
And the heart but one,
But the light of a whole life dies
When love is done.

One test of genuine goodness is that its appeal never palls, never fades. I read all three poems in my teenage, and I adore them quite as much still. The only thing that has changed is the quality and depth of my appreciation: in connection with the third poem, for instance, I realize now (though I had suspicions even when I was very young) that the romantic affection between two young people is the commonest, cheapest, most evanescent variety of love; a higher love is that of parent for child, higher even is the love that keeps a true scientist going through adverse and discouraging circumstances, vastly higher still is the kind of love that makes patriotic martyrs and Florence Nightingales, and most sublime of all is the love of God.