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Friday, September 25, 2009

Counterculture

This ‘counterculture’ (see previous post) I have been talking about has deep and ancient roots in Indian scripture, folklore and the popular psyche. It goes at least as far back as some verses in the Vedas, and much advice about the king’s duties and behavioral desiderata given in the two great epics, as well as those who have been portrayed as models of virtue, such as Rama (and Bharat while he was officiating in Rama’s place), and Bhishma, and Govindamanikya of Tripura whom Tagore used as a model for Rajarshi (The Royal Sage). A great deal in the Arthashastra, that famous how-to manual written by one Kautilya for his pupil, India’s first (historically-speaking) emperor, deals with the rules to be followed and ideals to be aimed at by anyone who wishes to be respected and remembered as a ‘good’ king: and among other things, it enjoins that the king, however rich and powerful, conduct himself not only as a wise guardian of his people, but one who sets standards of probity and sanctity that they may emulate for the greater common good, even though that may require that he sternly restrain all his greedy material impulses, including gluttony, lust and avarice. And it cannot be denied that many rulers all through Indian history at least tried to live the non-greedy and generous life, from Chandragupta Maurya himself through Harsha and Rana Pratap and Shivaji to Gandhi and Subhas Bose and Lal Bahadur Shastri and Morarji Desai and Jayprakash Narain and a great many ICS officers, judges, doctors, teachers and other lesser lights too numerous to list here…

And it was not just about kings, either. I think India, more than any other country, has consistently idealized the non-greedy man, the saint, the ascetic, the scholar (not the technician, mind you, who is too commonly confused with a scholar these days), the artist in love with his art for art’s sake, the wandering or meditating wise man, and even the householder who lives a quiet, undemanding, self-controlled, socially-responsible and charitable life – the grihi sanyasi (which, I think Swami Vivekananda once said, is the hardest kind of sanyas to practice!) At least, it is India where not conquering generals and rich shreshthis or even kings who have been traditionally accorded the highest social esteem; rather, it was expected that such men who have won great worldly success be seen as prostrating themselves before those who have been recognized as ‘holy’ men. And whereas I am sure that the great majority of kings and tycoons did so only for the sake of form, to keep on the right side of overwhelming social opinion (the same reason why so many medieval European kings did not want to rub the Church of Rome the wrong way), there were many, from Ashoka, Menander (Milinda) and Akbar to Shivaji and the early Chogyals of Sikkim (and countless less-known minor princes and zamindars) who did so out of genuine conviction, esteem and awe of men whom they genuinely felt to be superior, men from whom they could learn lessons of lasting value. Maybe things have started changing rapidly of late, but even a hundred years ago (and that is only a blink in India’s history), Rudyard Kipling was quite right when he wrote that across the length and breadth of this land the humblest of folks considered feeding a wandering sadhu a matter of earning merit (punya); he was not sneered at or shooed away as an importunate beggar but treated with reverence as a better man. Also, I can say both from my reading as well as from direct personal experience that, while charlatans there have always been aplenty (as there are among scientifically-educated men today, such as doctors!), truly wise and holy men have never been lacking in this country either.

And if you ask why this ideal was so strongly held and insisted upon, well, I have found through very wide reading that it was because India discovered long ago (long before western socialists and environmentalists and psychologists started spreading the word around the world anew), once and for all, that high living is not good for you, as an individual and as a society. It ruins you in both body and mind, it makes decent social life impossible, it hurts the ecosphere that nurtures you too badly to be sustainable for long. Intelligent and well-informed people will realize that I am summarizing whole libraries here, but to give a few indicators of what I mean – look around yourself, and you will see millions of obese and brain-dead people glued to their potato chip packets, beer cans and video games or football on TV or hanging out at the shopping mall: that is a little of what I mean by saying it ruins you in body and mind. In a world of competitive high-living, where everyone is playing the game of consumerist one-upmanship all the time, everyone is bound to burn with jealousy and discontent and malice towards relatives, friends and neighbours; no society can exist in a healthy state under such conditions, because no one can wish anyone well, and widespread ‘corruption’ (which stems from millions of the undeserving, from rickshaw-pullers and police constables to MBAs and MLAs alike determined to access the high life by hook or by crook), frequent scandals, riots, insurgencies and wars will be inevitable: that is a little of what I mean by saying that it makes decent social life impossible. And the warnings that the environmentalists have been giving out for at least forty years now, about increasing pollution levels and rapidly-dwindling natural resources and ominous signs of man-made climate change are hints enough about what I mean by saying that it ruins the ecosphere and threatens the very continuance of human life on the planet. Those (from George W. Bush down to my fat neighbour who insists that she only has a thyroid problem and her pampered brat is not a lazy rascal but only ‘suffers’ from attention-deficit disorder) who choose to believe otherwise are living in denial: the best they can do is carry the world with them towards doom.

This is getting to be rather a long post again, given today’s typical attention spans (another sad sign of the consequences of ‘high’ living!). So far I have written mostly about the negative aspects of chasing the high life. In the next post I shall try to explain what I have understood about the positive aspects of abjuring the same.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Ministers flying cattle class

The sudden hullabaloo over the so-called austerity drive launched recently by the Congress (and immediately imitated by lesser parties, like the CPIM organizing a khadi fashion show) first made me merely laugh sardonically – déjà vu absurdity, what else? Then I fell to reflecting, and it occurred to me that it was not a matter to be laughed at and ignored; there was food for thought here.

It is well-known that our politicians by and large like to live the high life; indeed, a great many people get into politics (have always done, at least ever since the British started letting in a trickle of Indians into government, way back in the 1890s) because they have decided it is the only way they can get a taste of the high life. It is not merely about dining at five-star watering holes and flying first class and staying at vast and grand bungalows at public expense, it is equally about being surrounded by armed guards and riding about in trademark white cars with sirens hooting and making swarms of secretaries and peons scurry about and keeping visitors waiting for ages just to tell the world how important one is, every waking moment. That is very much a characteristic of our political culture.

The interesting thing is that there has also been what I may call a counterculture, for want of a better word, of demanding that our rulers be self-effacing, simple in lifestyle, endowed with a philosophical bent of mind, dedicated to the ideal of service to the common weal, sage enough to know that to be honest in this world requires conquest of greed and brave enough to try conquering greed, regardless of the world’s opinion. That voice has never been completely drowned, and it grows strident every now and then – as now. This requires some understanding.

First thing to be noted: much of this strident criticism of the opulent living of our netas reeks of hypocrisy and double standards. Those who level such criticism – and those who focus and express it publicly, to wit journalists – are by and large middle class people who are themselves horribly greedy for the high life, and indulge in every kind of unethical dealing happily for its sake as long as they feel sure they can get away with it: I have been closely associated with the mass media myself, I have seen it all from the inside. I know how cheaply a reporter’s malleability can be bought – sometimes for as little as a suit length or an expensive saree or a bottle of good whisky or at best free tickets to Dubai or Singapore for self and the missus – and I despise them heartily when they write about politicians’ peccadilos, or sermonize about the importance of honesty and probity in public life. They deserve every bit of contempt I have heard politicians pouring on them. Their censure stems solely from impotent greed: they don’t hate the high life, they only hate the politicians who seem to be enjoying more of it than they can ever hope to. The fewer such people we have, the better for all of us. A straightforward crook is far more respectable than a pious fraud.

It is also a fact that our society (and that means not only the middle class, which has always been rather small till very recently, but the vast unwashed masses) has always expected the rulers to distinguish themselves from the ruled by grandiose and unabashed displays of pomp, pelf and power. Our folklore is replete with stories recounting, half-grudgingly, half-admiringly, the incredibly expensive and often unspeakably cruel ceremony and magnificence with which the sultans and badshahs, the maharajas and nawabs surrounded themselves. Single weddings, single monuments cost the taxpayer so much that great hordes had to be slaughtered to persuade other hordes to pay through their noses, and famine stalked the land afterwards and took off vast numbers again. It was not only accepted as part of the normal order of things, but even celebrated; after all, what were great sovereigns for, if they did not provide the masses with the spectacle and grandeur that they so craved, and could not hope to have in their own lives? Regardless of their avowed respect for their austere mentor Gandhi, both Jawaharlal Nehru and Md. Ali Jinnah carried this tradition of high-living into the palaces and courts of the new nations that were born under their stewardship in 1947 (Nehru was not dubbed 'The Last Moghul' for nothing!) Given that history, our current breed of rulers are doing nothing new or overly shameless and reprehensible; they don’t really need to apologise for anything.

Besides, the rulers of today – I wonder why they don’t have the guts to do it! – can very well point to the way the burgeoning middle and upper classes (by various estimates between 70 and 300 million strong) are living it up under the new dispensation, worshipping money and shopping and conspicuous consumption as the only things worth living for, all questions of ethics in making money be damned. Every other maidservant gets some jewellery made for herself whenever she can afford it, and tries to put her kids into an English-medium school; higher up the income ladder, every middle-class housewife splurges on puja shopping as though there will be no tomorrow, though her wardrobe may be bursting with luxury clothes already; look at how everyone spends on lavish weddings these days, and how nobody objects to the way the pujas themselves are becoming more ostentatious and expensive with every passing year, and fashion-show extravaganzas gain all-round approval, while money for poverty-alleviation programs is always scarce. And in case they dare to raise the inane objection that ‘it is our money we are spending’, they need only to be reminded that no money is their money by divine right: it is only a certain kind of social arrangement, a certain system of laws, that allows them to make and keep and spend that money the way they wish – and in allowing them to do so, politicians play a very decisive part (as in periodically hiking the salaries of government and PSU employees through one Pay Commission recommendation or the other, or in deciding how stiff taxes on businessmen should be). So why should the politicians themselves be left out of the party? Why on earth should the people expect them to be upright and moral and frugal guardians of a nation that is neither upright nor moral nor frugal when it comes to enjoying the material goodies of life?

Well, that brings us back to the insistent voice of the counterculture I mentioned earlier, the voice that is often almost drowned but never goes away, and that keeps making a lot of us feel guilty about our chosen lifestyles again and again. About that, in the next post…

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Poor little rich thug

(photo courtesy timescontent.com)

That is the photograph of Gaffar Mollah, a one-time rickshaw-puller who, thanks to a recent uproar in the mass media, has suddenly become one of the most recognizable faces in West Bengal, if not yet all over India. Goes to prove my contention that, given a little bit of luck and pluck, just about anybody can become a fifteen-minute celebrity these days.

He is the face of the dark underbelly of all that has been going on in the name of the development of the state of West Bengal over this last decade. As I said somewhere before, I once read ‘development studies’ avidly as a student of economics: the ground reality now makes me weep (but look, the happy cynic would say – isn’t this the apotheosis of the social-democratic dream: even a rickshaw-puller can aspire to live the five-star life in today’s India? What else is upward social mobility all about? You are just an elitist old fool for whom the grapes, unless you can get them yourself, are always sour…)

I should just like to say a few things here. First, don’t act holier than thou about ‘our sort of folks’ and pin all the blame on the Gaffar Mollahs and the political leaders who patronise them. They are simply on hire to do all the dirty work that the bhadralok don't want to soil their hands with; they are only members of the ‘executive committee’ (to borrow a Marxist phrase) of the moneyed elite who almost always manage to stay out of the undesirable kind of limelight – all bhadralok, doctors, engineers, actors, lawyers, NRIs, high-flying bureaucrats and businessmen of various hues – who create the demand for land that inevitably brings into being the landsharks and their godfathers. Where there is a demand, there will always be supply, sooner or later, by straight means or crooked. And when something is chronically scarce - such as land - the crooked means will always be resorted to, because the straight and narrow path is so difficult and unpalatable. So don’t call Gaffar Mollah or his political masters crooked while absolving the Raj Kishore Modi type or companies like Wipro and Infosys (see this news item) as ‘good’ businessmen, and the moneybags who want to luxuriate in the Vedic Village sort of vice-dens as ‘nice and innocent’ people; that is where you will go wrong. Nor do you need to shed too many tears for the farmers who are now up in arms (emboldened by the Trinamul landslide) against the land sharks – they are motivated by no nobler a sense of mission than to wring more money out of the buyers, now that all that hot money has driven prices up a hundredfold or more. All those farmers’ sons are now salivating over the imminent prospect of driving about in SUVs and lazing about in multiplexes and pubs, young and nubile and greedy females on their arms. Also remember: the Gaffar Mollah sort of fools deserve some pity. When the axe falls (as it does sometimes), chances are always ten to one that it is they, rather than their bhadralok patrons, who will be shot dead or locked away in prison for the crime of getting caught, while their real masters, the money-bags, can get away without getting singed, let alone put into serious trouble. So don’t envy Gaffar Mollah his few years of luxury.

Only, once and for all, get rid of the notion that a man deserves admiration or respect for the kind of car he drives, or the kind of hotel he stays in, or the amount of marble and granite in his house. Always try first to find out where the money came from. There will be no change for the better in India until every household begins to believe once more that one honest and hardworking man, though he makes only a humble living, is worth more than ten thousand rich and flashy crooks. And remember, too, that it is a really warped sense of values that can allow you to claim that the government doctor who gives protection money to his local neta so that he may not be posted away from the town where he has built up a cushy private practice (which gets the money to buy a bungalow in Vedic Village) is not a crook, but the neta who takes the money is!

Saturday, September 05, 2009

Ah, music...

They taught the Lord’s Prayer when I was in kindergarten, and I was so taken by it that I said it before going to bed virtually every night all through my school days.

As part of my curriculum while doing the higher secondary course, I came to know a little about the padavali (devotional poetry, directed chiefly to Ram and Krishna) literature of medieval Bengal (Vidyapati, Chandidas and Govindadas, among others), written in the artificial language called brajabuli and – I believe alone in my entire batch – I became convinced that this was the most important and precious thing I had learnt in those two years (barring poetry and humour in French), not all the nuclear physics and organic chemistry and calculus and stuff they taught in ‘pure science’. That did not prevent me from qualifying for medical and engineering school, but it may have been a major factor behind my deciding to opt out of such career choices. Maybe I was already convinced that my life and time were worth somewhat more...

In the course of studying economics in college and university (during which time, while teaching a great many students and winning medals in examinations and writing a large variety and quantity for diverse magazines and newspapers) I did a great deal of high-level math (only to find out how little it helps to figure out how to help people live better) but also somehow found time to read an enormous amount of subjects as diverse as environmental science and politics and sociology and history and psychology and linguistics and education and law, besides the literature of seven or eight different languages, and philosophy spanning three continents and three thousand years. And I became more and more convinced that Man was lost, and of his own choosing. Even skepticism and atheism and hedonism were thousands of years old – there was nothing in what the Sartre and Richard Dawkins and Steven Weinberg and contemporary management-guru types have been saying these last few decades that have not been said, debated and either blindly swallowed by some or laughed at by some centuries ago, in many countries. I learnt that sooner or later I would really have to become my own man and make my own choices. As the poet said about Reality, ‘It beckons and it baffles/ philosophy – don’t know/ and through a riddle, at the end, sagacity must go…’

So I began, as the years passed by, to understand more and more about what Socrates meant by saying ‘I know nothing’, and the Buddha meant by saying you first have to empty your mind, and Newton said about a child collecting pebbles on the seashore, and Tagore by dhulaar ja dhon taha jete dao dhulite (leave back in the dust what belongs to the dust).

While I have left behind a lot of things as boys’ toys, one thing that has stayed with me, and indeed grown ever stronger, is a profound affection for devotional music of any sort. The first notes of a really great piece of music, no matter what its age or language or denominational belonging, often transport me to a quiet ecstasy, and coming back to this world of here and now is a pain like no other.

Here’s a small but eclectic choice of my favourites. Youtube is a recent technological wonder that I am truly thankful for! Here is Achyutam Keshavam and Payoji Maine (pardon the ghastly graphics), here is Khwaja mere Khwaja, Richard Strauss’ Thus Spake Zarathustra played as the title theme for Stanley Kubrick’s classic science fiction movie 2001, Abide With me, and This World is not my home sung by Jim Reeves in American country style. I would have added something like Indranil Sen's rendition of Tagore's Daariye achho tumi amaar gaaner opare if I could find it on the Net. See if you can find it for yourself.

‘Ah, music!’ said Professor Albus Dumbledore, headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, ‘a greater magic by far than what we do here’.

Those who are interested might want to read what I last wrote on this blog about religion here.

I am not trying to convince or convert anybody. Just enjoy. And if you do find you share my tastes, get back to me, I’d love to talk to you.