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Wednesday, November 25, 2009

To those about to become ex-students

Around this time of the year I say goodbye to a lot of sixteen-year old pupils. This blogpost is about them, and for them.
As with every time, it’s been a mixed bag of feelings for me, some good, some bad, some memorable, some forgettable, some best forgotten. I’m sure it’s been the same for you all, too.
As always, there were a lot of people in my classes who had no intention of attending but had been forced in by parents or peer pressure, and who found nothing interesting in me or my classes, and who will forget everything happily and almost instantly. To them, my apologies: I wish circumstances had been such that I hadn’t had to bore you for so long. I hope you at least do well in your examinations, so that you and your parents do not have to regret giving me so much of your time and money. A few of you, though, might look back upon these classes with different and more positive feelings a few years down the line, and then get back to me to tell me about it. Some people keep doing that every year… people who were in my classes years ago. I shall look forward to it.
To those who came to dislike me and are determined to speak badly about me afterwards, I have just one request: speak only the truth as you came to know the truth about me. Don’t make up stories, or spread stories passed on to you. Beyond that, you are free.
To those who did enjoy my classes, and maybe are likely to feel bad when the classes are over, I have a few more substantial things to say. Firstly, no matter what you think now, for most of you that feeling of missing something good will be very temporary. Trust me on this: I have seen it happen so often that I know you better than you do yourselves. Most memories, for most people, don’t stick: they fade fast once someone is out of sight, and no longer regularly in touch. Five years from now, most of you will hardly be able to recall why you liked coming to my classes so much…
To that very small number who will retain strong and good memories, I not only give my love and best wishes for everything you try to do in your lives, but I hope that, as time passes by, as you grow and mature and grapple more and more intimately with life, you will appreciate ever more keenly what Sir did for you, beyond ‘covering the syllabus’ for some examinations, which, as he himself kept repeating in class, do not really matter in the long run (you will find out how right he was, that’s a promise!). It is this very tiny group which, as they keep growing older, become my friends, and those friendships sometimes grow closer and warmer with the passage of years. It is them I want to reassure that Sir will always have time for them, as long as he is around. Only, don’t fall out of touch for too long: these days I honestly cannot remember pupils who have not contacted me, even over the phone or by email, for more than a year at a stretch.
A few of you have already let me know, in diverse ways, that I mattered to you. To them, my gratitude. Just please don’t go on to do something later on that makes me feel bitter about having been grateful once (to know just what I mean, read this and this).
P.S.: Nov. 26: A couple of ex-students, who left my class ages ago, told me this morning they had read the above, and were feeling wistful, and wondering how so many years could have flown so fast, and how they wished they had 'taken more advantage of the classes' while they were with me. So I guess some people much older than sixteen might be reading this post. I shall be glad to hear from them. If some of them have a few words of advice to give to my current crop of pupils, they are welcome to send in that sort of comment, too.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Remembering 'Parashuram'

The Statesman yesterday carried this article reminiscing about Rajshekhar Basu, who wrote under the pen-name of Parashuram. I am writing this particularly for my literate Bengali readers, though that shouldn’t make it uninteresting for all lovers of good culture, even those who are not Bengalis. To read more about Parashuram’s multi-faceted genius, you might try this blogpost too.

In the days when Tagore was still shining like the mid-day sun in Bengal’s cultural firmament – meaning the 1920s and 30s – a lot of people began to worry that the next generation of creative people would be eclipsed in that awesome glare: after all, they said, only grass grows under a banyan tree! The truth is, however, that Tagore in his most glorious but waning years saw a thousand talents bloom in the arts and sciences, commerce and politics all around him. Though most of them acknowledged his immeasurable superiority in almost all works of the mind, they were – by the Lilliputian standards of today! – giants in their own right. I have in mind talents as diverse as Sukumar Ray and Satyen Bose and Prasanta Mahalanobis and Nandalal Bose and Saiyyad Mujtaba Ali and Subhas Bose and Biren Mookerjee and Radhabinod Pal… Rajshekhar Basu was one of the worthiest members of that splendid galaxy.

This is an age when millions of Bengalis are growing up to be ‘educated’ without reading anything outside textbooks and cram sheets for examinations (and ashamed or scared of reading anything but, especially in Bengali), when numberless doctors and engineers and accountants and suchlike are comfortable if not proud about the fact that they know virtually nothing outside their narrow areas of specialization (and yet get very angry if compared with carpenters and cobblers and plumbers – though I have never yet managed to understand what is so utterly contemptible about a man who can fix my water pipes, and so immensely admirable about someone who can mend boilers or bones but knows nothing else); an age when the vast majority of us can neither speak in chaste Bengali nor confidently speak or write anything better than pidgin English (witness the cover of a ‘Bengali’ magazine like Sananda, where half the stuff is English phrases like ‘latest beauty tips’ written in Bengali!); an age when we are all too ‘busy’ to read or engage in any of the fine arts seriously, though so many of us do little beyond going to (or taking our children to) tuitions, and indulge in pleasures none of which exercise the mind or even body in the slightest. It is also, weirdly, an age when most of the ‘educated’ among us are happy to imagine that we have ‘advanced’ greatly in the last half century. Well, Parashuram died almost half a century ago, and thinking about his accomplishments takes my breath away, especially when I compare him with 'achievers' among my contemporaries.

Well-enough qualified as a chemist to be hired by the legendary P.C. Ray for the Bengal Chemical Company, competent enough as an administrator to become general manager and secretary of the same company (which position he held for thirty years), also a trained lawyer, single-handed compiler of the first (and arguably still the best) real dictionary of the Bengali language, a brilliant word-spinner and illustrator who wrote some of the most idiosyncratically funny stories we Bengalis have read (I won’t even begin to discuss such gems where most readers will either not know what I am talking about or won’t understand), he also had time to write what, I believe, remains the most erudite yet lucid 700-page summary of the Mahabharata that has ever been written in Bangla, an absolute must for all those who will never get around to reading Kaliprasanna Singha’s magnum opus (which, I guess, would be 99.9% of today’s Bengalis!)… and maybe I am forgetting, or still don’t know about, other things that he did besides. He lived a life in the mould of the universal man, and he was truly a citizen of the world, in the best sense of that expression.

If that, even half a century ago, was what it meant to be a ‘successful’ man in Bengal, worthy of respect and emulation, how many of my countless students and ex-students under the age of 35 even understand what success means, let alone think of trying to reach for such standards? And how can they justify their not trying, except by either ignorance or apathy? Alas, as a cover story in a certain edition of Desh magazine firmly announced a while ago, there is no denying the fact that, for all our fancy outward show (so many NRIs, so many shopping malls, so many cars on the road), Bengali culture has become a matter of modhyomedhar joyjoykaar (a celebration of mediocrity): we may be moving about much more and much faster these days, and chattering our heads off, but inside our minds we have chosen the stagnant little pond in place of the ocean that we once loved and aspired to. And so those who still talk of oceans are regarded as weird, if not as enemies of the people: I shudder to think of what almost happened to the only man who could see in H.G. Wells’ horror story The Country of the Blind.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Flawed capitalism

I found this article criticizing contemporary capitalism on the website of Forbes magazine: it attracted my attention both because the writer is a Bengali businesswoman doing well in Silicon Valley and because I am broadly in sympathy with her views. However…

I believe that no matter what her credentials in engineering and business may be, Ms. Mitra never really took the trouble to understand economics well, though her gut-feelings, born of personal experience, are on the right track. As for her early (I guess teenage-) fascination with Ayn Rand, the less said the better: if Rand was a philosopher at all, she was no more than the rabble-rouser kind. In putting overwhelming stress on the individual and the worth and need of individualism, she lost her head completely, and never bothered to find out about how the world actually works. In real-world capitalism, individualism goes only thus far, and that is not very far at all. Without a great deal of cooperation, coercion, persuasion of large numbers and subterfuge (which is just a polite and fancy word for cheating) modern capitalism would never work at all… even the most talented, intrepid and energetic entrepreneur, inspired by the loftiest of visions, would find it impossible to get vast numbers of people to work their behinds off for him (for basically trifling rewards) and to buy blindly whatever he wants to sell to them to make his dreams come true; a Howard Roark would make very little headway in this world without the wile, ruthlessness and manipulative powers that are the hallmarks of political dictators who make it big. Napoleon, a historical figure, was infinitely better endowed than Roark (a fictional character), and he knew better than all others how little he could have achieved without brainwashing, inspiring, compelling and just plain hoodwinking millions of less clever, less cautious, less farsighted and less greedy people! Individualism works with the lone artist or scientist, or sage or writer or even teacher, maybe; it is nothing but silly (and rather dangerous) romantic nonsense in the marketplace as much as it is in government. As Galbraith never tired of pointing out, top-level corporate managers are just as much ‘organisation men’ as the most dyed-in-the-wool Soviet central planners of a bygone era, though much more subtle and flexible, maybe: they have little patience with, or space for, mavericks among their ranks. The occasional genius of a maverick comes along and rocks the boat and quickly becomes the stuff of legends, that’s all… the exception that proves the rule. For every Henry Ford or Edison or Bill Gates, you have a hundred thousand wheeler-dealers who hardly deserve to be glorified with the label ‘entrepreneur’.

Ms. Mitra hasn’t even got all her facts right, as so many commentators have already pointed out rather scathingly: to take just one of many instances, ‘union-enforced inflexibility’ was certainly not the main reason behind GM’s long decline and recent collapse. Personal success does not obviate the need for serious research when one is pontificating publicly – unless, of course, you are a beauty queen, whose pronouncements are not to be taken seriously.

And while it is absolutely true that capitalism rewards the lucky and amoral speculator much more than the creative man (unless the creative man himself turns speculator), my grouch against it is that it also rewards the salesman, the publicist, the showman, the opportunist, the hustler, the con-man and even the goon (if he is clever enough to stay clear of the law) much more than the genuinely creative folks, especially those among them who have the double disadvantage of being both honest and lacking in the aggressive money-making spirit. Thus so many artists have died hungry, while mere traders have made vast fortunes by cleverly marketing their creations… and no one will ever convince me that the most successful stockbroker or building contractor is a more ‘talented’ person than a good musician, mathematician, nurse, storyteller or teacher, or contributes more to real social welfare or cultural progress. Even more seriously, capitalism rewards people with criminal inequality; why on earth should a ‘great’ entrepreneur ‘need’ billions as a reward for his entrepreneuring when so many others who do difficult and dangerous jobs, from scientists to commandos, apparently function very well without ‘needing’ such obscene compensations (besides, we know perfectly well how CEOs of companies going bankrupt still manage to wangle huge pay-packets for themselves – what ‘talents’ justify their earnings?) Worst of all, unbridled capitalism sends out a wrong and pernicious signal to society, especially the foolish young – that money making is more glamorous, and therefore more desirable as a career than anything else, no matter how the money is made, so why should one ‘waste’ one’s time pursuing careers where the chances of making big money are not so great? And so, as we can see all around us, everyone wants to climb onto the B-school bandwagon (unless they are going into showbiz): where will this society find its future teachers, librarians, judges, writers, policemen, politicians, zoo-keepers, firemen, plumbers and carpenters (leave alone thinkers!), except among the residual riff-raff, those who couldn’t even manage to get an MBA from a third-rate B-school? And what sort of society will it be when just about everybody is either a salesman or a showman or a con-man?

So, as a lot of people are beginning to re-realize (I hope the wisdom lingers), capitalism has its plus-points, but it always (and not just now and then, when hit by a crisis) needs to be sternly regulated and guided by government in the larger social interest. The real worry is whether governments are as a rule well-qualified to play that role. Do our lawmakers even know and agree about what is good in the larger social interest? Can I expect higher IQs, higher GK, more foresight and better taste among our MPs than among our general population? Right now, in India and the US, at least, the legislatures are over-full of people who are themselves bedazzled by, in awe of, and often in the (indirect-) pay of those whose pernicious social influence they are supposed to restrict and regulate, to wit the moneybags who benefit from laissez-faire. The western European nations offer much better models: to the best of my knowledge, they have struck the happiest possible balance between unfettered (predatory) capitalism and the Soviet-style socio-political straitjacketing which I am sure nobody wants to come back… if the recent worldwide economic crisis has set people thinking along those lines again, I shall say it has been a very good thing on the whole. I fear, though, that its effects have not gone far enough. In the town where I live, looking at the market for everything from real estate to jewellery to cars and vegetables, it would seem as if nobody has heard that there’s a recession in large parts of the world!

P.S., Nov. 13: Try this article to have a glimpse of what giant financial institutions do, and what they claim to be doing...

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Kids raised badly by 'good' parents

It has long been one of my strongly-held beliefs that Indian parents by and large bring up children very badly, either through neglect and oppression or through pampering, while driving all kinds of stupid ritualism and superstition deep into their minds in the name of hallowed tradition - and that lies at the root of all the 'corruption' in this country that we beat our breasts over. Also, that things have gotten very considerably worse in this regard over the last three decades (during which period I have been a teacher). It is heartening to find that some other people agree with this viewpoint, publicly, such as here (someone has written a supportive letter to the editor in today's edition of the paper, too).

Read the article. Let me see what kind of responses come in: I shall adumbrate my own views thereafter.