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Friday, December 31, 2010

Goodbye, 2010

As I write, the sun has set on the last evening of the year: 2010 is coming to a close.

In one sense, it has been an eventful decade for me, and busy enough. Big family turmoil, successive surgeries on my wife and one on myself, minor accidents on the road, dad-in-law having and surviving a stroke, resigning my job and learning to be self-employed after I was past 38, getting used to the world of mobile phones and the internet, having some of my writing published, writing a whole book for my daughter, travelling again and again to different parts of the country, teaching thousands, bringing up my daughter, warding off and surviving all kinds of mischief-makers bent on giving me depression at best and a bad name at worst, buying a new car and a house, coping with at least two great bereavements and people who have taken me through emotional roller-coasters deliberately or otherwise, getting burnt and food-poisoning, saving obsessively month after month, year after year, being betrayed very badly by some I had loved and trusted… yes, I guess I have had my hands full.

And yet, strange to say (I was reading my journal entries nearly a decade old), time seems to have stood still. Were it not for the fact that my daughter’s grown so big, and that I have thinning grey hair and the beginnings of a paunch and twinges in both knee joints now when climbing stairs of winter mornings, this could still be December 2000. Very few really big changes have come about in my life and lifestyle in all these ten years, despite so many things happening: or at least I wonder why it seems that way. That is why it feels so weird to see and hear from so many people who were children then and are quite grown-up now, married, divorced, making a living, researching and teaching in their turn, raising children of their own, scattered all over the world, some having turned into snobs, some fancying themselves to be intellectuals, many ‘too busy’ to look back, some gone astray, some already thoroughly sick of life. When did they grow up? Have they really grown up at all? Have I grown old, or has Time somehow passed me by, so that I feel I am hardly much older than these people? Do all ageing teachers feel this way, or is this something peculiar to me?

They have put up colourful festoons and bright lights in the little industrial township next door: in a few hours’ time, the merry-making will begin there, as in millions of households and hotels and resorts all over the country, dancing, feasting, jesting, carousing until many of them have drunk themselves silly, and so another New Year will be rung in with head-splitting hangovers and surly mutterings. I have in mind the sort of people who write comments saying ‘Get a life!’, because I prefer to stay at home and think, and reflect, and write the year away. More sand trickling down the hourglass, but I don’t feel too bad about it. I guess I have stepped into what the poet called the ‘season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’, and though I crib sometimes, it’s certainly a vast improvement upon the hectic, confused and dreary adolescence and youth that I have had to live through. In the year ahead, I wish some of my readers will find serenity.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

There are such people around us, too

Tomorrow will be Christmas Eve, so I shall continue to muse on the Christmas theme…

It is not quite a coincidence that lately I have been handling stories in class on the essential spirit of the season, telling us what being human is and is not about, both for one’s own self and for others: Tolstoy’s How much land does a man require, O. Henry’s The Gift of the Magi, and Ebenezer Scrooge invisibly and enviously watching the Christmas revelry at the Cratchits’ in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. And I have been musing, like a thousand times before, about giving and sharing and loving. I read in Robert Fulghum’s classic heart-warmer All I Really Need To Know I Learned In Kindergarten about how V. P. Menon, who rose from obscure poverty to become the most powerful bureaucrat in Jawaharlal Nehru’s first government, had repaid his debt to someone who had helped him out at a time of great distress in his youth with a small gift of money by giving charity of the same amount many thousands of times to perfect strangers in need throughout his life.

I have also read in Reader’s Digest, November 2010 edition, how a self-made Austrian tycoon aged 48 is giving away all his wealth to charity, and insists that he is doing it because it’s brought him a kind of happiness that he never thought existed, just like Dickens’ Scrooge, because he has found he had been wasting away his precious life chasing things he had absolutely no need for (fancy villas, snazzy cars, expensive holidays, grossly-overpriced clothes with designer labels, getting sozzled on champagne, trophy wives), socializing with people who were just as shallow, aimless, conceited and wasteful as he used to be, while the lives of so many in the world out there could be made safer and healthier and happier with a little bit of his money.

And it’s not only mad millionaires who give away a great deal of their money. Hard on the heels of that article comes another one in this month’s RD, paying glowing tributes to those they have rewarded with the title Asians of the Year. The top award has gone to a 60-year old roadside vegetable vendor in Taiwan, who has been working since teenage, still maintains a backbreaking work schedule day in, day out, and yet has managed to give – hold your breath – the equivalent of fifteen million Indian rupees in charity so far, following a habit of simple living, careful saving, ignoring the follies of ‘high’ society and caring for everybody around her whose need is greater than hers.

The saints have said ‘Give until it hurts’. These people are saying it doesn’t hurt to give, it’s actually great fun, and brings a profound sense of satisfaction. And yet, when the editor sadly says ‘if regular middle-class families too made giving an important part of our lives, it will make a real difference… we have so much to learn from this elderly vegetable seller!’ I know, only too well, how much it hurts people like us to give away the tiniest bit of even things that we don’t need at all. It hurts to give up that obscene birthday bash at a fancy hotel, it hurts to forego the holiday abroad, it hurts to make do with a cheap watch or vanity bag for several years, it hurts to give a rickshaw puller five extra rupees when he has pulled you a mile through blazing heat, it hurts even to give away books we’ll never read and clothes we haven’t worn for ages, it hurts to express gratitude to those whom you owe a great deal, and it hurts to give sad and lonely people a patient and sympathetic ear…

I am reminded of the old Bengali doggerel ota ke re? / ami khoka / mathay ki re?/ aamer jhankaa / khash na kano?/ daante poka / bilosh na kano?/ ore baba! Which, crudely translated, would sound like this:

Who’s there? – just the kid
What are you carrying? –  mangoes under a lid
Why don’t you eat them? – this toothache’s horrid
Give them away then? – God forbid!

So Karl Rabeder and Chen Shu-chu make me bow my head in admiration and respect in a way that no tycoon or cricket celebrity or scholar or merely successful professional man will ever do. If that makes a lot of people gnash their teeth because they, highly admirable in their own eyes, find it unbearably hateful that they can’t extract the same respect from me, I am sorry for them.

And I shall consider myself deeply rewarded if a few readers, after going through this post, tell me ‘Now I know why you have always stuck to a lifestyle much less fancy than you could afford…’ Maybe I keep all that ‘extra’ money for better things!

P.S., Dec. 31: I should like my readers to look up this earlier post  in this context.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Santa Claus is coming to town...

The short winter set in this time with clockwork precision: the first really chilly day here was 15th December. I guess it will vanish as punctually as a German drill sergeant, too, which means I have just one month to savour all its charms. And by God, I am trying to.

It is deliciously cold if you go out on a scooter early in the morning or late evenings. Hot baths and hot soups are a pure delight, and so is sitting in the sun in the afternoons, soaking the warmth into the bones, and snuggling into blankets at night. Sometimes a balmy breeze blows up, and the sky overhead is a dazzling azure: I can never have enough of it. Fruits and fresh vegetables are available aplenty and in lush variety – even if they are not cheap – and a good walk stimulates the appetite for the simplest of meals (although I am ashamed I am indulging myself on my wife’s wonderful cooking). My workload is at its lightest around this time of the year, too, and so I have lots of time to laze around the way I like. Physically I am in good shape, there’s enough money in the bank to suffice for all the needs of anyone except those who are greedy and live to show off; there are people around who care for me and make it apparent, and lovely books to read and movies to watch and puppies and children to play with and a lot of bird song and butterflies flitting in the garden, and the year has passed without mishap. Above all, I don’t have to rush around to make a living, nor to cringe before and ingratiate myself with countless undeserving people, as, alas, so many people have to. My daughter is growing up like a blissful dream before my eyes. Truly I have a great many good things in life to be deeply grateful for. I only wish I could make a lot more people happy, and my only regret is that so many people are making the world so dirty and noisy and ugly merely because they have been brainwashed into the wrong way to pursue the good life…

Anyway, it’s the season of universal good cheer and goodwill, so I send out my most earnest regards, blessings and good wishes to all. May everybody have a Merry Christmas. May more people find out that all they need in this world is happiness, and the only happiness possible in this world comes from sharing and giving and loving (besides work that you enjoy for its own sake). Not from capital and technology, not from political power or fancy intellectualism, not from marks and degrees and pubbing and shopping. God bless us all with a little wisdom.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

A waking nightmare

Jaded as I am, I had a most jarring experience in class yesterday. I had just read aloud Guy de Maupassant’s famous 1884 short story, The Necklace, and reached the horrible twist in the last line – when Matilda Loisel realizes that she and her husband have ruined their lives for nothing – an ending which makes me shiver forty years after I first heard my mother telling me the story, and believe it or not, many of the children in the class laughed! They found the wanton ruination of two human lives funny! These were kids in their early teens, too, people who you would think had not lived long enough for their innate intelligence and sympathy to be deadened by too much sordid worldly experience.

All I can say is Jesus Christ… what kind of adults are they going to grow into? People who will laugh to see parents or children being crushed by trucks on the highway, and carry on with life as though nothing very significant has happened?

Mind you, most of these are what these days is called ‘bright’ students, in the sense that they get reasonably good marks in school science and math tests, and (merely extrapolating from so many years of teaching experience) I can confidently predict most of them will be in medical and engineering colleges a few years from now.

Is the world filling up with monsters? Would I want one of those engineers to build a house for me, leave alone ask one of those doctors to look after me in my old age? (do scroll down a bit to the post titled Morality Training for doctors?)

One thing that I am now convinced about: you need to teach people to feel (good feelings, especially, not the brute ones like anger and greed and sloth and avarice and vengeance, which, heaven knows, have never needed to be taught) just as you need to teach math and science. Unfortunately, education worldwide has concentrated maniacally on the latter kind of teaching, to the detriment of the former in the name of ‘progress’ – assuming that people will just somehow learn to become good human beings by themselves, automatically. We are now beginning to reap the whirlwind.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Hurry, distraction and the net-on-mobile

Imagine a young Newton trying to work out one of those famous equations of motion or Wordsworth thinking up Daffodils or Bach composing one of his gems while answering the cellphone while zooming down the highway on a motorbike.

I had a little argument via email with my thoughtful ex-student Navin the other day about the wonders of the internet, and then I read this article about the epidemic of multi-tasking (also see the New York Times article mentioned therein). I hope everybody will notice that a writer and a medical-school teacher have complained equally vociferously about exactly the same thing. Look them up, all, then get back to me.

I can vouchsay that everything from new publications being full of howlers and typos (which I never saw in books of the 1940s and 60s, though the proofreaders had no computers to help them!) to botched surgical operations to bankers messing up statements of accounts to third-grade essays being written by high school pupils to the alarming rise in road accidents to the fact that kids these days cannot remember things they ‘learnt’ three months ago while those of our generation and older can easily call back what we were taught many decades ago – all this can be laid at the door of this multitasking scourge, to which the mobile-net addiction contributes mightily. Think: what kind of a romance can you have, even, when the so-called lovers meet up only to check messages from their respective friends every two minutes? Who says it’s just an unrelated accident that so many of my ex-students have already broken up with their spouses within a year or two of marriage?

I thank God that I can still enforce the no-mobile-phones-in-my-class rule very strictly, and I pity the schoolteachers who cannot (as is now true in many places). They are wasting time on those who have become incapable of learning anything (so many ex-students who are in college now solemnly assure me it is impossible to pass examinations without cheating!) I shudder to think of the world of the 2030s, when all the people in their prime will be like this: a thousand grasshoppers jumping around in their heads all the time, hopelessly incapable of concentrating on any one serious occupation for more than five minutes, whether it be a debate or a piece of engineering design or driving a car or listening to music. Already people are blasé about getting run over by trains and buses while talking into their phones, and utterly shameless about texting away at an office meeting – I only wonder how much worse things are going to get. How much longer before parents by the millions ‘forget’ to bring home their children at night (as they are right now forgetting to pay their wards’ school fees), and surgeons ‘forgetting’ to sew up after operations? Looking at the kids whom I teach today, I can assert that such a scenario has now become entirely plausible. In this connection, also look up this post on my other blog.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Morality training for doctors?

I saw in the newspaper the other day that the government, alarmed by the rising tide of reports and complaints about inhuman callousness, irresponsibility and greed among doctors all over the country, is mulling over the idea of including a course on human rights in medical colleges by way of a corrective, so that the next generation of doctors may be sensitized to be better human beings, and not merely technically competent (the two are not as independent of each other when it comes to dealing with humans as most people think) while dealing with people in their care.

Given the prevailing social climate of greed is good and making money is everything, who will lay bets against me that such a course, if implemented, would be any more effective than the environmental education syllabus introduced in schools more than a decade ago has been in making more environmentally responsible citizens, or self-imposed codes of conduct, such as there exist, have made teachers, policemen, mediapersons, business executives and politicians more disciplined and service-oriented on the whole?

Physician, heal thyself, goes the hoary adage. I shall insist that it applies equally strongly to all the other vital services. And that in today’s social ambience, only a few isolated eccentrics are bothered about upholding certain minimum standards and ideals: all the rest have become so dedicated to the blind chase of easy lucre that the dividing line between right and wrong has become blurred, if not invisible, a long time ago…anything goes as long as you can get away with it, and you are not the victim.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Millennial musing

I wonder whether a lot of people have noticed it, but the first decade of the new century (and millennium) is over.

Many of my readers are too young to remember the (frequently synthetic and exaggerated) worldwide excitement that surrounded the turn of the last century. People like me, on the other hand, who were old enough to remember well because it all seems to have happened yesterday, have reason for both mirth and bemusement as we look back.

There were ‘millennial’ expectations galore, from the most gloomy sort (the world is soon going to come to an end…) to the most adolescent fantasies (we are soon going to migrate en masse to Mars, computers are going to educate us while we sleep). Most of the hyperbolic expectations have been – predictably enough – belied. Despite 9/11 and the Airbus A380 and Facebook and bird flu and the Harry Potter phenomenon and the current recession and the rise of China, I think the world of 2010 would be entirely familiar to any worldly-wise man from 2000 A.D. If that man also happened to be someone with a lively sense of history (meaning one who can easily go back a few hundred, or even thousand years in his mind, and can therefore remember so many things that have happened so often before), 2010 could in fact have been boring by its over-familiarity – coming after all the hype and hoopla, that is to say.

I should like my readers to disagree with me here. I should like them to tell me about all the really epoch-making things that have happened in the last ten years: things that are going to change our lives drastically and forever, and therefore will be remembered vividly a hundred years hence. The way, I mean, that (picking great events roughly ten decades ago at random) events like the publication of Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams, Einstein’s annum mirabilis (1905), the first aeroplane flight, the discovery of the electron, the passing of Queen Victoria, the Russo-Japanese war which cracked the myth of white invincibility after a three-century run, the first great successes of the women's suffrage movement, the early political upheaval in Russia (which would lead to the world being torn into two a little more than a decade later) shook up the world…? Or would they agree with me that it has in comparison been rather a damp squib?

Monday, November 15, 2010

Bye bye time again...

The older we grow, the faster time seems to whiz by. It is hard to believe that I wrote a post titled To those about to become ex-students a whole year ago. It’s that time of the year again already when a very large number of pupils, 16 and 18 year olds, are going to leave my classes all together. I would like to say goodbye, thanks, good luck and love you to them, but I don’t want to repeat what I wrote so recently, and besides, I don’t have a lot of new things to say. But since it may sound new to the current outgoing batch, I’d ask them all to click on the above link and read it for themselves.

There were no big surprises this year. I can vouchsay that I have still not slackened up, the way so many teachers do as they grow old: I tried as hard as I could to make my classes both useful and interesting as I have done every year since I started teaching such a long time ago. There were, as always, some irritants, and also a few young people who kept the flame burning with their attention, affection and enthusiasm, so that I could tell myself before going to sleep night after night that it wasn’t a bad job after all.  There were a few girls among them too, which was most gratifying.

But I keep getting more tired and dispirited year after year. And that is only partly due to advancing age (there are many busy and vigorous teachers my father’s age): the tiredness comes mostly from the fact that more and more, no matter how hard I try, things are perforce becoming increasingly mechanical and lifeless because my ‘customers’ want it that way. It has been well said that you can take a horse to the water but you cannot make it drink; that you cannot describe a sunset to a blind man, that people don’t hear what they don’t want to hear. With a lot of people, stories, quizzes, debates, movies, jokes, games, music, nothing seems to work, nothing seems to shake them out of their apathy. Learning, people have decided, cannot be something enjoyable, worth remembering and therefore respecting (and this regardless of subject): it’s all about cramming and getting marks in examinations, only to be forgotten instantly in favour of more ‘interesting’ things (such as money and beauty care and shopping and parties and ‘reality’ shows on television), and therefore, there’s nothing more valuable and enduring to be gotten from a teacher than a few notes and tips and tricks to get through exams without too much effort. Naturally, the teacher’s value dwindles to zero the moment the exams concerned are over! There are, indeed, lots of teachers and tutors around these days (who knows but the majority of them) who have comfortably adjusted with the situation, and don’t care a whit, as long as they get paid in full till the last month, and then they wipe out the memories as quickly as their ex-students and their parents do: they are, I suppose, as happy as men can be. It’s my bad luck that I could never reconcile myself to becoming a mere trader in knowledge… it would have been a far wiser move, when I still had the time to choose, to become a stockbroker instead, because there would have been the prospect of much more money there, at least, than any teacher can hope to make!

Anyway, as I often tell people these days, I can almost see the light at the end of the tunnel. Once my daughter is on her own two feet, and I don’t have to bother much about making a living any more, I shall turn away from this thankless grind. One way to do that would be to take in large batches as I have always done, but with the caveat that after the first three months, I shall turn away most of them, keeping back only the maybe twenty per cent or so who have given ample evidence that they are really keen on learning the way I would like them to be – and their school reports and parental ambitions be damned (ten years down the line the parents will be much junior to me anyway). Added to my savings, they will just about give me enough money for me and my wife to live in a humble style, but I shall certainly enjoy myself a lot more. And all the time I save when I no longer have a seven-days-a-week routine can be happily invested in doing the things I have always loved to do: writing, travelling, watching movies, listening to music, playing with toddlers, getting involved in welfare work, counselling, perhaps learning new things again. It is looking forward to that prospect that cheers me up most these days… after a forty-year marathon, if I live, I guess I shall have earned it.

Monday, November 08, 2010

Obama in India

There is both a lot of heartburn as well as exultation in the Indian mass media over President Barack Obama’s ongoing visit to India.

The heartburn stems from the fact that the US of A is still unwilling/unbothered about acknowledging India’s notional Great Power tag – they won’t endorse our bid for a permanent seat in the UN Security Council, they are still dragging their feet over granting us full and legitimate nuclear-power status, they are still too cosy with Pakistan to acknowledge that we have a right to have our problems with that country fully and officially recognized, etc. The crowing is due to the fact that while only forty years or so ago our PM had to go hat in hand for help to the US, and was insulted as the representative of a third-rate backward country, the current incumbent in the Oval Office has come to hawk his country’s wares and solicit business because he desperately needs to create more jobs in his homeland in order to survive the next election – and India, supposedly, is one of the few countries which can help him create jobs on a significant scale, both by investing in US companies and by placing large orders, especially for defence equipment.

It would be nice if our media took a closer look at the ground realities and discovered for themselves that there is little cause for either heartburn or exultation.

No matter how much we dazzle ourselves with our recent successes, whether it be the average annual GNP-growth rate or the number of dollar millionaires we are creating every year or the razzmatazz of the recent Commonwealth Games, the fact remains that India is still one of the poorest and most backward countries in the world, and carries very little clout. Decide for yourself after checking out just the following statistics: the per capita income, compared with the ten richest countries, the number of people who live below or just above the poverty line (not less than 600 million – that’s twice the whole population of the United States), the number of illiterate people, the quality of our infrastructure (consider the power and drinking water situation in the capital city; you don’t even have to think about the hinterland), the number of Indians who have won Nobels and Oscars and Pulitzers and Grammys and Olympic golds in the last 50 years (that too, given the fact that we have the second largest population), the number of people from advanced countries who want to come and study in even our ‘elite’ educational institutes, the number of Indians who want to run away to the US for a better life, and the all-pervasive corruption in our public domain. Finally take into account the fact that, unlike in the era of Gandhi and Tagore, there are no Indians around who strike the rest of the world with awe (and don’t even bother to mention SRK or Sachin Tendulkar). Even where economic and military power is concerned, China is vastly better positioned to give the US headaches – or demand its respect – than we do. So heartburns can happen only to those Indians who live in a cloud-cuckoo-land of their own imagination. We literally have miles to go before we have a right to expect that the US take us seriously as a ‘great’ power.

As for the crowing, I should like to make the following points: a) it is gross bad manners to crow over others’ misfortune, as individuals or as nations, b) we haven’t got much to crow over anyway, seeing that the US, even in these troubled times, is a larger economy than the next three (including India) combined, c) they haven’t exactly come begging, but only to do some hard-nosed business, and they are not even willing to make any significant concessions to our national interests in return, such as increasing H-1B visa quotas, which means they still feel confident enough to ram what they want down our throats, d) it would be stupid on our part to forget that we depend on them (think of the dollar inflow from NRIs and FIIs) much more than they need us.

Both Obama and Manmohan Singh will negotiate with one hand tied behind their back, so we should wish both well, and not expect too much. Meanwhile, if we really want a future US President to treat us with the kind of respect that we like to dream of, let us remind ourselves that a long, tough road of nation-building lies ahead. We might start by resolving to set up a system whereby tens of thousands of beggars will not have to be unceremoniously carted off to distant towns in order to uphold our ‘national pride’ whenever an important foreign head of state comes visiting or some event like the Commonwealth Games is being held in the capital city !

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Sorry, and new question...

So this last planned venture has definitely been given the thumbs down by my readers, if only by default: 600-plus visits in seven days, and only 13 people have felt enthusiastic enough about the project to tell me to go ahead. In a way it’s good that I had asked before plunging headlong into creating the new blog; it would have been so much effort wasted, and that would have been most annoying, because I’d have not even been doing it in the hope of making money, and I have to struggle to find time for all such new ventures.

I guess, for reasons unknown to me, people are still not willing to use the facility provided by the net for this kind of communication – at least not with me. So maybe I’ll just have to carry on dealing with them privately, face-to-face, on a one-on-one basis, as I have done for so many years. I wonder how much longer I’ll have the steam power, but that’s another question.

Anyway, my thanks as well as apologies to the few people who wrote in with encouraging comments. (One thing I couldn’t help noticing was that, while so many people write so much nonsense anonymously, this time, barring one stray exception which I have posted, there have been no anonymous comments at all!) And, as far as the earlier post is concerned, comments are closed, as of today.

Now let’s turn our attention in another direction. A fairly sincere and thoughtful pupil recently asked, in the context of something we were reading in class, ‘What does it mean to be truly human?’ Good question. I gave an answer in class, but I shall reserve opinion here for now: let’s hear what readers have to say.

What, in your opinion, makes someone truly human?

[P.S.: I found the picture on the net. If someone has copyright problems with my using it, please let me know]

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Should I start a new kind of blog?

In the early days of this blog – that’s more than four years ago – I wrote this post giving a short explanation of why I was starting it. I should like my regular readers to check it out: once more, even if they have read it already sometime back.

Since then a lot of water has flowed under the bridge. This blog has willy-nilly become fairly interactive: many followers (growing every month), lots of visits, and a considerable sprinkling of sensible and interesting comments on almost every post. The same goes for the other blog too. That’s all very satisfying – and may the numbers keep increasing – but one thing that has been bothering me is that, contrary to what I had really wanted, these blogs are mostly about what I am thinking about various things, and people reacting to my thoughts. At the same time, lots of folks still come to me – if not in person then over the phone, or via email – for counsel on just about everything under the sun (see that link above again), people of all ages from teenagers to those who want help (not tuition) for their own children. I can’t attend to everybody at much length these days, and I get tired more easily too, tired of answering the same sort of questions again and again.

So do you think it would be a good idea to start up an all-new blog where the ‘posts’ will be questions from people (who might choose to remain anonymous, though I’d want to know a few things like age, gender and current occupation), while I answer their queries in the form of comments? One thing that many readers are sure to discover is that as more and more posts keep coming in, their own questions are getting answered, even though I never talked to them directly (many people don’t know whom to ask, or simply feel too hesitant to air their problems: and I have found through long experience that people who think their troubles are unique actually share them with lots of others!) The queries, I suppose, could be sent to me by email … but these and other details can be worked out gradually, if and when the new blog has been launched.

I shall wait keenly for responses to this post. And, for this once, even anonymous comments will be posted, as long as they say something relevant and meaningful.

P.S.: Nov. 01: Comments on this post are now closed.

Saturday, October 16, 2010


The current October 2010 issue of Reader’s Digest magazine sadly ran what they call an ‘open  photo editorial’ (p.44), commenting on how shoplifting at our malls has become really big in this country – to the tune of an estimated Rs.5,000 crore a year (that’s about one billion US dollars), almost. Shoplifting happens in other countries, too, but the Indian figure, as a percentage of total sales is much higher than, say, in the US and UK. India, they said, has earned one more dubious distinction: ‘the shoplifting capital of the world’! They also wondered ‘what the Father of the Nation (to whose memory we still officially pay homage this month) would have said about such a collapse of national integrity’.

I was reminded by this story of the fact that a certain girl – ashamed to admit she used to be a pupil of mine – had boasted, after going to college in Delhi, how ‘cleverly’ she and her college friends steal things from shops, all kinds of things from cheap trinkets to expensive electronic items, ‘just for fun’. That was maybe five years ago; I wonder what she’s stealing from the office now. And only a few days back I read in someone’s blog (another Delhi-wali college goer) that she has stolen books from the book fair ‘for fun’. Yes, say the Digest editors, for some people shoplifting can be ‘fun’. And they say there are even parents around who think ‘their thieving teenagers are clever, because the kids don’t get caught at their shameless (italics mine) game’.

A critical point to note is that all these thieves are ‘educated’ as well as well-off; they steal only for fun, or maybe out of greed, or merely to show their friends how ‘brave and clever’ they are. And, as noted above, there are lots of people from whom they win admiration for it: or at least, they are certainly not called ‘shameless’ and worse. Indeed, if you look into the comment on the last post I wrote on the other blog, you will see that someone has asked ‘Why should it be mandatory for everyone to be interested in the same things – such as books?’ I am sure that it is the same sort of (by now very numerous-) people who will say ‘Why should everyone be bothered about morals and things like that? That is so 1970s (or whatever)!’

In this context, I only wonder whether it is indeed a fact that there has been any all-round decline in national integrity of late, as the Digest editors seem to think. Aren’t fraud and theft and blackmail and lying and cruelty of the worst sort quite as much a part of ‘our hallowed tradition’ as the rise of great men and women now and then who have set good examples and persuaded a few of their fellow-Indians – for a while – to rise above the muck to better things? My reading of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata certainly makes me think like that. I have read about graft on a gigantic scale in Mughal times, and heard that even in my grandfather’s youth – that’s about 70 years ago –  the municipal Corporation of Calcutta was called chorporation (den of thieves), where nothing moved without a bribe. From Vidur to Gandhi, good men have been freaks actually, I think, who have in vain rocked the boat briefly before vanishing from the stage, leaving the ‘wonder that is India’ to wallow back in the filthy mire, which, maybe, is the only place where most of us really feel at ease. After all, there is nothing new about the Bangla saying churi vidya mahavidya, jodi na poro dhora (theft is a great art, if you can avoid getting caught). The only difference that may have come about lately is that people have become more ‘shameless’ about what they do, more in-your-face, even ‘proud’ of it. Until very recently, men like Harshad Mehta, Ketan Parekh, Ramalinga Raju and Lalit Modi were being touted as icons and role models for our youth, remember? Their bad luck they got caught: it is an open secret that countless ‘icons’ of exactly the same ilk are still sitting proudly on their pedestals! Who cares how they made their money? Isn’t just having loads of money everything these days? I have never yet met a young man who is ashamed that his father got rich stealing scrap metal from a steel plant. 

Our children get to know it and practise it, apparently with their parents’ tacit (or even explicit) approval, in school itself, the day they start copying in exams, don’t they? If ever they get caught, their parents raise a huge ruckus about how the poor darlings don’t really deserve any serious punishment, don’t they? And, as I shall never tire of pointing out, it is these millions of children who grow up, by way of honing their skills at cheating, shoplifting and other minor arts like that, to become ‘successful’ doctors and engineers and teachers and bureaucrats and lawyers and politicians and business tycoons, don’t they? So why don’t we at least collectively cry halt to our other national passion once and for all: that of forever beating our breasts about how ‘corrupt’ this country is becoming? Why not declare that churi vidya… will be our national motto hereafter, for one and all – and then find out whether a country which bases its economy and polity explicitly on such a foundation can survive for long. Which crooked millionaire wants his milkman or tailor to cheat him? The one universal constant that I have found in dealing with people is that even thieves absolutely hate it when others cheat them or steal from them; that's the one time they talk nineteen to the dozen about the need for morals! Why can’t we applaud those who are smarter crooks than we are, even when they are picking our pockets?

 Besides, why should someone who steals Rs. 50 be called a crook and another who steals hundreds of crores be invited to lecture at high-end business schools?

Friday, October 08, 2010

Stories from Zen

I have told many people the two following stories about how great Zen masters taught their disciples (or wannabe disciples) precious lessons.

Story one: A great master was deep in meditation. A famous samurai-aristocrat went to see him in the hope of finding esoteric wisdom. He waited for a long time, but the master did not open his eyes even to acknowledge his presence. Not used to being so ignored, the warrior cleared his throat loudly to attract attention. The master opened his bloodshot eyes and said, rather roughly, ‘What do you want?’ As humbly as he could, the visitor said, ‘O wise one, I have come to ask you what is heaven and what is hell’. The master merely said ‘I have no time to answer foolish questions from riff-raff’, and closed his eyes again. Goaded beyond endurance, the warrior unsheathed his sword and shouted ‘You presumptuous beggar! Do you have any idea who I am? Do you know I could cut off your head at once?’ Strangely, the sage opened his eyes and sneered, ‘That is hell’. It hit the samurai like a thunderclap. He sat down and thought for a long, long time. Then all of a sudden he fell at the master’s feet and said, ‘O holy one, I now realize I am a benighted fool. Please, I beg you, show me the light.’ At this the old man opened his eyes briefly, and said, with a gentle, winning smile, ‘That, my son, is heaven. Go home.’

Story two: Another very venerable sage was going on a long journey on foot with a young disciple, lecturing on all sorts of subjects as he walked. When it was almost evening, they were passing a dense forest, and they heard a female voice crying. Hurrying to see who was in trouble, the master saw a young and pretty girl weeping by the river bank, a bloody wound under her foot. On being asked, she wept still, and said she had gone to sell fish in the market, and she had been late in returning, and the ferry had gone, and she had cut her foot on the sharp rocks, and now she couldn’t get across, and she would be eaten by wild beasts. The master (who was a very strong man) simply hoisted her on his shoulder like a sack, waded across the river, deposited the girl at her parents’ threshold and resumed his journey, lecturing as though there had never been a break. But the disciple’s mind was on fire. He had actually seen his master touching a young girl, a girl in clinging wet clothes, and carrying her on his back… the same master who kept on telling him that one of the absolute prerequisites for one who wanted to walk the path of sanctity was to stay away from women like the plague! What an utter hypocrite! Why was he wasting his time with such a fraud?

Presently they pitched camp, and the student lit a fire, and cooked a meal, and they sat down to dine, and still his mind was all muddled and distracted. At long last the master broke off his harangue and took notice. When he asked what the matter was, the young man was at first too abashed to say anything, but eventually the master insisted too sternly, and then, confused, mumbling, he confessed that his mind was in a whirl. ‘Why did you behave like that with the girl?’ What girl, queried the sage, wondering. ‘Oh, the girl you lifted on your shoulder, of course.’ ‘When did I do that?’ ‘Why, at the river bank, this very evening! You took her home. Surely you can’t have forgotten all that already?’

The master stared long and hard at the disciple, and then burst out laughing. ‘My dear boy,’ he exclaimed at last, choking back tears of mirth, ‘the difference between you and me is that I left the girl at her doorstep; you, however, are still carrying her on your back!’

Last words: 1) My grandfather could talk a great deal when he told me stories, but as I grow old I suspect that he might have been something like a zen master. And 2) a young reader, in college at present, very recently wrote that I have ‘a 70’s attitude to life’. Any comments?

Friday, October 01, 2010

Another troubling online chat

I virtually forced myself on an old boy the other night over g-chat, asking him whether he had elected to forget me (seeing that he – like so many others – used to be close to me once upon a time, and now it has been years since he emailed me, or rang me up, leave alone visited me). He sounded most contrite, and tried very hard, poor boy, to convince me that I had got it all wrong, he remembered me most vividly and thought of me very often, and had often felt like reviving the connection.

Then he confessed something that made me very sad. He said that he was suffering from a very deep sense of inferiority and inadequacy which had prevented him from calling all this time. He had, he said, managed to become nothing more than one of those ‘cybercoolies’ I publicly sneer at so often, despite having dreamt big dreams once, and he couldn’t, he said, come over and face me until he had ‘achieved’ something he could be proud of.

Since I have apparently not been able to make my outlook on life clear enough even to old boys with whom I once spent hundreds of hours as a teacher, let me try once more to explain just where I stand.

1.      I do not despise any honest profession at all, so God forbid that I should despise anybody simply because he has got a job in the IT-industry. All that I sneer at is people preening about such jobs as though it spells the last word in success. As long as an IT-worker admits that he is just making a living doing a pedestrian job and makes no more bones about it, I have absolutely nothing against him: I shall wish him quick promotions, bigger pay and all the happiness he can find!
2.      I judge people – and especially my own old boys and girls – not by their pay packets and official designations and which industry they are in, but by whether they seem to be happy and have managed to become socially valuable, in however humble a capacity. So I shall be glad to hear from anyone who has managed to become ‘only’ a government clerk but paints or sings and gives a bit to charity, or a primary school teacher whose pupils adore her.
3.      On the other hand, I shall treat as scum any old boy or girl who has managed to become a crooked business tycoon like Ramalinga Raju, or a cabinet minister who has been several times to jail on charges of murder, arson, rape, fraud, blackmail and suchlike. That is most definitely not how I measure success. Likewise for someone who has become a faceless bureaucrat or middle-level corporate manager who cannot claim any achievement of a moral, artistic, intellectual or spiritual kind, whose only identity is his paycheck, and whom nobody knows outside his factory/office and housing complex.
4.      Besides, as I have recently said in a comment on one of my blogposts, not one of my ex-students has become a success anyway, if success is measured by great wealth, power and fame, of the J.K. Rowling/Sachin Tendulkar/Tom Cruise/Manmohan Singh sort. So why should anyone think that I want to hear only from ex-students who have made it big (haven’t I myself said that much of that kind of success depends upon sheer luck)? Do my students ever really listen to me? I wonder…
5.      If a teacher has loved his old boys and girls as an elder brother or father would love his younger siblings or children, how can it be that he would want only his ‘highly successful’ ex-students to stay in touch with him? If that is how my own pupils have judged me, I have obviously not managed to convey either my love to them or the significance of that kind of love – and what else can make a teacher like me feel more wretched?
6.      Finally, as I have hinted or directly said again and again on this blog itself, some of the people I most like and admire are people who are far more humble and ‘ordinary’ than my ex-students, people like roadside vendors of fast food and rickshaw pullers and maidservants and very petty shopkeepers and police constables – because I have seen in them the human qualities that I most value, to wit courage, simplicity, honesty, diligence at work, patience in the face of suffering, kindness, gratitude, good cheer, innate wisdom and self-possession, because I firmly believe that such sturdy sons and daughters of the soil are worth far more to a nation which wants genuine progress than all the ‘educated’ bhadraloks who think much more highly of themselves than what their contribution to social welfare warrants. If even that does not persuade my hesitant ex-students to get back to me, I fear nothing will.

Friday, September 24, 2010


Why haven’t I written for more than a week?

Fact is, I have been a little absent-minded. Alone at home for the largest part of the week, I was immersed in books and movies – in all the time that remains to myself after classes and marking homework and talking to visitors, that is. I have also been translating someone’s thesis on the influence of baul music on Tagore’s, and in the process listening to a lot of baul songs playing in the background while I was hammering away at the keyboard, and I was transported. Besides, I was reading up on the brilliant and hilarious literature for children written in Bangla by Premendra Mitra and Leela Mazumdar: old favourites whom I was visiting after a long, long time. And they didn’t fail to work their magic on me. How silly the world and its cares seem at such times, and how foolish of us to bother about them all the time! As long as a man has a roof over his head, his meals assured, and some time on his hands, he can find more than enough to entertain himself with, and pay not the slightest attention to the way the world goes. Our great creative artists have wrought miracles without end for us: if we forget them, the folly is ours.

Let me have Neverland, and others can make careers for themselves that will buy them Louis Vuitton bags and gold water closets… God bless them and their ‘success’.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010


Tonight our family was watching an episode of Ashapurna Devi’s novel Subarnalata, which has been recently dramatized for TV. There was a scene where the little girl pries on the central character, the mejobou in the joint family who has been reading a novel (incidentally, Tagore’s Gora) on the sly, and threatens to tell all to her grandma, who has driven it into her silly little head that for women to read books is nothing short of a cardinal sin. When mejobou later offers the girl’s mother to teach the girl to read and write, the mother warns her not to ‘ruin’ the child’s life.

Before today’s ‘educated’ reader turns up his (or even more to the point, her) nose at these benighted ancestors of ours, let us consider what has happened in (Bengali middle class) society in the more than eighty years since mejobou lived and struggled against harshly restrictive social norms. I can confirm that though my own grandmother went to school, she had to read novels on the sly after she got married, although big changes were coming about: the other grandma of mine actually taught lifelong in a school for girls. By the time my mother was growing up, most girls in ‘respectable’ families were going to college (and even becoming ‘smart’, if you read some of Tagore’s latter-day stories or watch the Uttam Kumar-Suchitra Sen movies), and I remember seeing as a child that it was considered okay, or at least customary, among ‘cultured’ families to give books as wedding presents. At least among urban middle-class Bengalis (I know just how small a fraction of the Indian population that is), reading seemed to have caught on in a big way.
However by the time I went to school and college, things had again changed in a big way (and remember, we are today’s parent-generation, all of us in our 40s and 50s!). True, for the eager book lover, there were still bookshops and libraries around, and some parents were even ready to buy books for their children, but their numbers were dwindling rapidly: I cannot vouch for the girls, but I know for a fact that in my whole batch at school and college I could count on my fingers how many boys ever read anything outside textbooks (and comic books), even among the ‘good’ students. Indeed, in all the years in college and university, I met only one female whom I could call a reader by my standards.

Now fast forward to the current day. When my daughter was reading a book while waiting for her school bus (she was not even ten then), the mother of another child asked my wife why she was reading something when there were no exams. around the corner. There are no libraries worth the name any more in this town, and no bookshop that sells anything outside textbooks and notebooks for examinations has survived. I have met hardly ten parents in all these 24 years of teaching in this town who have averred that they are interested in reading (reading anything beyond gossip rags and fashion magazines, that is), whereas I have been told again and again by literally hundreds of pupils that their parents regard reading as a cardinal sin: the same parents who think nothing of splurging on parties and clothes and cars, who maniacally insist that their children – girls and boys alike – must cram night and day for ‘good marks’ in examinations, who allow their children to waste scores of hours a month on trashy TV and computer games (can anyone tell me why?).

So 80 years on, we are back to mejobou’s condition with a vengeance! The only difference being that people are far more well off today, and most of them, male and female alike, take great pride in calling themselves ‘educated’. What does this augur for our future as a nation and as a culture?

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Sadly different trajectories!

This article tells you how in the west – in the US especially – the ‘car culture’ is slowly on the way out. It is well known that cars (privately owned cars, especially) are bad with a capital B, in terms of the congestion they cause, the pollution they are responsible for, the number of people they kill and maim for life, and the kind of social class division and tensions they create: especially in poor countries. More compact urban design and vastly improved public transportation would be unqualified blessings for us all. So it is tragic that China and India – which between themselves account for a third of the total human population – are going all out the way the USA did in the 1950s, buying cars to flaunt their new wealth and 'status' like there would be no tomorrow, because by the time they reach US-levels of per capita car ownership, more people would be dying of accidents and pollution than in any wartime situation short of a nuclear holocaust. Here are some statistics about what has been happening on Indian roads over a recent ten-year period. Do we care for our children? Do our ‘educated’ grown-up children care even about their own lives?

By the way, I have not yet received enough positive responses to the first part of the story I started with the last post to encourage me to continue!

Monday, September 06, 2010

Beginning of a story?

[I have just started writing something upon a whim (a roadside vendor talking about his life and times). I don't know whether it's going anywhere, whether it will end up as a proper story. I am posting the first installment below: reader reactions will help me decide whether I should post later parts or take this off the blog...]

I sell paani-puri near the gate of a temple in a small industrial town. I have grown old doing this: I have been at it for nearly thirty years now.
            I first came here from a remote village in north Bihar, with a baraat, to attend the wedding of a cousin – he had got a truck loader’s job in a local steel plant, and had had to spend quite a bit of money to get in, and he urgently needed it back by way of dahej, so he was getting married in a hurry. I stayed on for a couple of days, looking around the town, and for some reason my eyes fell on this spot, and I got a little trolley, found a shack to live in behind the marketplace, and stayed. I am not too sure what gave me the idea of selling paani puri: someone must have put it into my head. That was thirty years ago, and I have never gone anywhere else, and now I am growing old. I have looked after my parents till they died, and married off a younger brother and two sisters, and brought up two sons and a daughter, and married off the daughter too, and built a tiny brick and tile house for myself and the wife – all by selling paani puri (they call it phuchka here in Bengal) for four hours every evening for the last thirty years. Leaving aside essential family occasions, and being sick and hospitalized once, almost twenty years ago, I have never missed a day.
            Things have changed around me, and not changed. There were many more trees around here back in the beginning, and the temple attracted much smaller crowds, and there were far fewer cars and motorbikes on the road. Jackals howled at eight in the evening as I trundled my trolley home. These days I often have to stay till past ten. I started selling paani puri at the rate of two for ten paise, now they go at six for five rupees. There are certainly a lot more smart young girls on the roads these days: they not only wear jeans and sleeveless T-shirts but cosy up to their boyfriends in public in a way we couldn’t dream of thirty years ago. And these people have a great deal more money in their pockets than boys and girls their parents’ age did. Those who came to eat phuchkas thirty years ago are their parents’ age, so I can tell.
            But so many things haven’t changed, either. Though the temple precincts are brightly lit, the road itself is still as dim as it was long ago, because the municipality forgot this street while it was replacing fluorescent neon tubes with high power sodium vapour lamps. And they still litter the roadside, though there is now an official ban on it. People of all shapes and sizes, from tiny girls to mountainous middle aged men take my breath away by how much they can eat. I wonder, too, that they can gorge on phuchka when folks are supposed to sit down for dinner – and though I shouldn’t do this, because they bring me custom, I sometimes swear under my breath when I have to go on serving them, even when I am dog tired and want to go back home, knowing that I will have to listen to my wife’s ritual complaints before going to bed, and wake up at the crack of dawn to start cooking for the next evening.
            I worked alone for many years. Then I brought over the younger of my two boys from home and put him behind the counter to help me. He is a grown man now, and I must start thinking about his marriage. He has mercifully proved to be a hard worker, and when I cannot work any more, I can leave the business safely in his hands. The older boy has been a disappointment. He has been a drifter and shirker since he was a child, and never finished school, and these days he is married and lives off his in-laws, though he likes to tell people he is a house painter. My wife has been a help all through. She looked after the family all by herself for many, many years, until the old folks died, and the children grew up and went away. She was getting lonesome after all those years, and there was little to cling on to in the village, most of the ancestral land having been sold off, and I had built the house here already (although it had only two rooms and a makeshift toilet then), so I brought her to stay with me a few years ago. Well, even that is going to be a whole decade soon. How time marches on. I didn’t have a white hair when I first arrived here: now you have to look very hard to find a black hair on my head.
            I couldn’t speak a word of Bangla when I arrived; now I can understand and speak it as fluently as my native tongue. But I talk very little, preferring to watch and listen as I work. And you cannot imagine how much you can learn about people if you quietly listen and watch. Most people talk too much, I think, and don’t listen enough, not even to themselves! It makes it easier for me that they usually think I am just a wall – no ears, no mind, no memory, so whether I am listening or not doesn’t matter. Many people will be amazed, even horrified, if I told them half the things I know about them.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

What's going on?

National Geographic has shown millions of hectares of barren land in Brazil where there was near-impenetrable rain forest even two decades ago. The Himalayan glaciers are shrinking at a breathtaking pace. The passages between continents in the Arctic Ocean have remained open in winter of late, which used to be unheard of. Climate rules have gone haywire all over the world, with Russia reeling under a sweltering summer, arid areas in Ladakh and Pakistan being flooded while people in Cherrapunjee, Assam – the wettest place in the world when I was a boy – are queuing up for water. It is well known that our capital city itself has grown used to living with power and water scarcity round the year. In my own little town, the muggy summer seems to be going on for ever, there has been too little rain all over south Bengal, and there are real fears being articulated in the papers that there might be severe water shortages round the corner.

And yet what is amazing is that people are so utterly apathetic, or maybe I should say unconcerned, about what is going on. They talk about growth rates, and the share market, and the examinations ahead, and the coming pujo-extravaganza, as though everything is just business as usual. It scares me. Are people going to wake up only when scenarios like Mad Max and Water World and The Day After Tomorrow materialize? What shall we do with our fine clothes and fancy cars and slick mobiles when the taps run dry? I remember how sudden flooding cut off the power in Hyderabad briefly a few years ago, and then people suddenly realized you cannot have an IT industry without electricity – but they forgot the lesson with such incredible speed! In the same way, it seems to me, the world outside New Orleans has forgotten what Hurricane Katrina did (strange that we remember 9/11 so much more vividly, although the damage was on a vastly smaller scale!) Is that what we have decided upon as the best strategy to deal with disasters, then: quickly forget every trauma so that we can go on pretending that we are making wonderful progress? Do we really believe that we can beat Nemesis perpetually that way?

I wonder whether anybody here reads the frequent new entries on the blog titled Worldchanging: bright green that I have on my blogroll...

Saturday, August 28, 2010


Something happened today that has made me change my mind about waiting long for comments on this blog each time after I write a new post.

I had activated a facility that gmail provides to mark anonymous comments (besides those from all sorts of weird pseudonyms I have come across over the years) as trash and send them directly to the trash can without showing them in my inbox first (unless the emails are from sensible names, I trash them from the inbox without opening them, too: a good way to protect my computer from viruses, I have been told, apart from other things!). The trash is automatically cleared every thirty days, but upon a whim I occasionally take a peek into it – and today I was amazed to find numerous comments there! It goes without saying that I clicked on ‘empty trash forever’ without glancing at any of them. And now I have decided that if more people want to write comments from hiding than otherwise, there’s no point waiting for comments to come in: I shall write as often as I please, and those who are interested will take the trouble to look up older posts (and read up and reflect upon earlier comments) and comment on them – as a few genuine readers actually do, whether they agree with everything I say or not.

This is a kind of sickness, this writing comments anonymously or from behind ridiculous assumed names, and on this I won’t hear different opinions. I have been writing letters and other things virtually all my life, and using the net for about fourteen years now, and I have said a lot of things to a lot of people, including a lot of harsh things, but I have never once felt the need to write anonymously. I will not deviate from the opinion that only someone dirty minded or weak-minded needs that kind of shield – and my reaction is that the opinions of such craven people do not count, so they do not deserve attention or acknowledgment, leave alone rejoinders. Even if they write words of praise: I have (until that filter was installed) deleted anonymous comments again and again which lauded something I had written fulsomely. At the same time, as any real reader will have noticed – and people who can truly read are few indeed, as I should know from thirty years’ experience of giving people comprehension exercises! – I accommodate critical comments too, just so long as the writers are polite, and sufficiently informed, and give evidence of having read my piece closely. Indeed, I often engage with such critics, trying to point out how far I agree with them, or stand corrected, or where I think they have not understood me, or have made some logical or factual error. That is what I call debating, and as I have lamented before, far too few either understand debates or can hold their own in the right spirit.

Judging by the difference between the small number of people who have enlisted as followers and the much larger number who keep visiting this blog, it is evident that a lot of people visit and maybe even read a bit, but cannot think of anything to say, no matter what I write about. I suppose I should accept that as okay, though a bit of a pity. And I suspect that it is a small fraction of that number who want to say things which deep inside they know are either foolish or ignorant or just plain irrelevant if not downright offensive, and these are the people who want to write anonymous comments. Chances are very high that these people will never dream of visiting me and saying the things they write as comments to my face: the security of anonymity that the net provides makes lions out of rats. Well, bad luck, folks. I have already told you how your efforts are wasted.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

More musing on education...

John Kenneth Galbraith coined the expression ‘conventional wisdom’ – the kind of stuff that everybody takes to be axiomatically true. He also pointed out, with a great wealth of historical examples, how conventional wisdom keeps changing from one era to another. Thus, for instance, ‘everybody’ knew once upon a time that dragons existed, and the earth was flat, and monarchy was enjoined by divine right, and woman’s proper place was in the home, and so on and so forth. He also discussed how people of every age scoffed at the conventional wisdom of their ancestors while passionately and uncritically clinging to their own.

One such piece of conventional wisdom that is currently accepted as gospel truth is that every kid must be sent to school and college, and kept there for twenty years at least. It is said that the young ought to be given a chance to ‘enjoy life’, and also all the ‘benefits’ that formal education can provide. Now pursuant to what I wrote in the last post titled What price education?, I would like to rock the boat violently, and suggest that 99 per cent of the population neither needs nor wants schooling beyond class 8, which means up to the age of fourteen. Given that neither they nor their parents want anything more from education besides jobs, and given that most jobs definitely do not need any education beyond class 8 and a few weeks or months of training (think of everyone from a shop attendant to a bank teller to a hotel receptionist to a petrol pump manager to an office clerk or an insurance agent or a factory worker), who needs to hang on to high school and college and ‘learn’ all sorts of stuff from the calculus to Shakespeare to the way our digestive system works or how imperfectly-competitive markets operate, stuff that they are not remotely interested in, stuff that they will forget within months of their examinations, and which they will NEVER need in their working lives? As for other professions requiring a little more education, such as those of mechanics and nurses and primary school teachers, it’s very little mind work and mostly repetitive, hands-on training, nothing that cannot be started off after class 8 really – why waste four more years and then go to college to learn such basically elementary stuff?

Consider honestly – how many people do you know who are genuinely interested in medicine, or the law, or history, or literature, or mathematics of a high order, things that really need many years of study beyond high school? Why send everybody to college when they could be making a living by the time they are 18 or 20? Look around you: it is an open secret that the overwhelming majority in our colleges are actually what economists call ‘disguised unemployed’, doing nothing but having fun at their parents’ expense, sleeping, partying, chatting on Facebook, idling at cinemas and shopping malls, putting people’s lives at risk zooming about on snazzy bikes, having silly affairs, experimenting with drugs, getting unwittingly pregnant, waiting to get married off, or for ‘campus recruitment’ into the kind of jobs which, as I said before, don’t really need any education beyond class 8, and involve pretty menial work and pay peanuts anyway. All they get from their long ‘education’ is ingrained laziness, irresponsibility and swollen egos, which actually makes it tough for them to adjust to the rigours of the working life. Think: if they had been working since mid-teenage, in however humble a capacity, they would have been contributing something to the family fund as much as to the gross national product; instead, they are allowed to live as high-expense parasites till their mid-twenties: who gains from that?

The very worst thing about these millions of pampered brats is that they have been conditioned to look down upon people who are actually much more valuable than they. Thus the ‘smart’ schoolgirl sneers at the ‘mere housewife’, and so does not want to get married early, though she might be dreaming of becoming nothing more than a waitress in a hotel or a call-centre employee, blithely oblivious of the fact that being a good housewife (not the rich couch potato type who leaves everything to in-laws and maidservants) calls for much more hard work and worldly wisdom than their aspired jobs do, and is nothing if not a respectable occupation. Likewise the ‘smart’ male bank teller talks to the fishmonger as though the latter is an infinitely inferior being, though his own education and job is nothing that any truly civilized man can be proud of (and he might be stupidly ignorant of the fact that the unpretentious fishmonger actually earns much more than he does!). As for the so-called all-important chance to ‘enjoy life’ while young, who says that being idle and fooling around all the time at one’s parents’ expense is the only way one can enjoy life, or even the best way? Millions of people down the ages – from super successful ones like Dickens and Sachin and Bill Gates to much less famous ones without number – have dropped out of school or college and started working early: who dares to claim that they never enjoyed their lives? In any case, doesn’t the idea of ‘enjoying life’ sit very uncomfortably with the idea of getting educated, which, unless grossly caricatured as it is being these days, has always meant hard slogging round the year?

Let me stop at this point and wait. I am hoping this time round many more people will come in with comments, and thus join in a debate…

Friday, August 20, 2010


I have regretfully removed several blogs from my list titled ‘Blogs I visit’, for no other reason but the fact that these blog writers (despite repeated prodding and nudging from me) have not been writing for many months together. Maybe they have given it up as a bad job. Writing needs patience, time, skill, and most importantly, having things to say again and again: I suppose many people start off for a lark, and very soon they run out of steam, or become busy with ‘more important’ things like having affairs, going on shopping or drinking binges, or job hunting… in any case, I don’t see any point keeping these dead or dormant blogs on my list of favourites any more. Suvro Sarkar, Sreejith, Rochishnu, Supra, Debaroon – let me know if and when you start writing frequently again (by which I mean at least once a month: I myself write as often as ten times); then I shall put your blog back in that list once more. Arani I am still keeping for a while there, because, though he posts only once in a blue moon, he invariably makes uncommonly good reading. The same goes for Tanmoy and Alka. I know they have their problems, and are often hard-pressed for time, but I shall keep wishing to see them writing.

In that same blogroll I have included a few other sites that I often visit. I urge my visitors to try some of those sites now and then: that will not only give them a better idea about my interests, but some food for thought too (besides material for writing better essays and for school/college projects – this is for those of you who are still students!)

These two blogs are now my most preferred way of keeping in touch with the world. I get dozens of phone calls and emails every month from people simply asking ‘How are you doing?/ What are you doing these days?’ Now I cannot talk shop or gossip, or write back the same things over and over again, and most of my serious concerns are reflected in these blogs anyway, so the best thing these people can do, if they really want to keep in touch (which I strongly doubt sometimes!), is to read and comment on my blogs. My orkut community is nearly defunct, and Facebook is for duds (indeed, it’s most used by kids my daughter's age), so in order to communicate with people I prefer to use these blogs, besides email. 

I am already looking forward to this blog’s fifth birthday next year, by which time I should have more than 200 followers, and maybe the visit-count approaching the 100,000 mark. Do my readers have some ideas about how best to celebrate the occasion?

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

What price education?

As everybody who knows me even at some distance should be aware, I have been obsessed with reading and arguing and thinking and knowing things all my life. I also happened to do more than well in all formal examinations as long as I sat them, and besides, I have been involved, as a teacher, with education for thirty years now, handling pupils from middle school to the postgraduate level, cutting across a wide range of disciplines. So I guess when I say that I am getting sick of what passes for education these days, and wouldn’t mind much if my daughter gave up formal education after high school and concentrated on doing something she likes much better, people should sit up and take notice.

Let me be categorical in outlining what I have understood about the meaning(s) of education.

1.      At the highest, most rarefied (and also the most essential?) level, education is about man-making, in the sense that everyone from Socrates to Vivekananda understood it. It’s the meaning that comes in most useful at the time of giving seminar lectures and writing learned articles, and in practice it has become the least appreciated, most abused meaning of all – as I am sure not only teachers but parents and even little schoolboys will agree with me. If someone grows up into a strong, brave, honest, kind and loving soul these days, it is despite, and certainly not due to the kind of schooling one has received.
2.      Second in importance is a process of nurturing what used to be called ‘well-stocked minds’ – not necessarily good and precious human beings, but at least widely informed, intelligent, balanced and not narrowly-prejudiced men and women, and therefore folks who are assets to any society and nation, as humble parents and office-workers as much as high-level leaders and governors, trained to live the good life both public and private, because they know how much true enjoyment the world offers, and also how to avoid its worst snares and pitfalls. Let my best students, who have acquired postgraduate and higher qualifications from the best of academia in India and abroad, tell me how much they have been benefited in this sense by twenty-odd years of schooling.
3.      At the third level, education is a process that supposedly encourages and brings the best out of those born with exceptional cerebral talents, those destined to become great scientists, inventors, artists, writers, teachers and statesmen. Forget the vast numbers of third-rate colleges that India and America have sprouted of late – do even the very ‘best’ contribute much in that line any more (keeping in mind that many of the most successful people in the US today are dropouts from places like MIT and Harvard)?
4.      At the lowest – not unimportant, and perhaps the only sense relevant to the overwhelming majority of people, but lowest nevertheless – level, education is supposed to equip young people with some saleable skills out of which they can make a living. Now barring a small number of professions (such as surgeons and lawyers, CAs and pilots, and even hairdressers and fashion designers and carpenters who are lucky), our ‘educational institutions’ of this sort, it is an open secret, equip their ‘students’ so poorly that, after, say, a BTech/BHM/BBA degree bought for five or ten lakhs or even more from an upstart private college, they consider themselves both lucky and ‘proud’ to get 20-25,000 rupees-a month jobs in this or that corporate house, whether they are back-end IT firms or banks or hotel chains or shopping malls and suchlike. These are 12-hours a day grinds, too, sometimes, and despite all the vaunting, the work is often of a very menial sort, and demeaning, and full of drudgery, and offering few prospects of better things in the long run: rather, there is always the threat of the pink slip hanging like the sword of Damocles over their heads, and these people get broken families and ulcers and burnouts long before they reach middle age. Also, they are by and large uncultured with a capital U (whether you judge by their public manners, the general burden of their conversation, or the books they have read, their taste in clothes and jewellery or their attitude to charity), as I have been chagrined to find out a thousand times over… my question is, is the pursuit of this kind of mind-destroying, soul-deadening ‘education’ worth it? Given that if someone is intelligent, and well-informed, and energetic, and willing to work long and hard, and is only interested in money, and she starts her own fledgling business with a bit of daddy’s money at age 20, chances are reasonably good that she will be doing much better than 95% of her contemporaries in 15-20 years’ time, as I have verified from a thousand live examples around me, even if she only runs a good garments shop or eatery? Besides, financially speaking, it is always better to own an iron foundry or hospital than to be employed as an engineer  or doctor there, and one thing I have learned very well is that you certainly don’t need to be an engineer or doctor to be able to set up businesses like that, whatever other qualifications you need.

So I tell my daughter ‘If you are seriously interested in getting a good education, go the furthest mile along the line of your choice, whether you want to study Physics or Sanskrit at the university level, but if you only want to make money, and big money at that, don’t waste your time pretending otherwise. You don't need formal education beyond high school to make a good career in purely material terms’. Who is going to tell me that I am misguiding her?

P.S., August 18: It is now a week since I put up this blogpost, and it has been visited almost 500 times, from literally all around the world. But just listen to the deafening silence! Nobody seems to have anything at all to say, in criticism, support, or to point out dimensions of the issue that I have missed, or even to ask questions. Yet virtually every visitor is not only an educated person, but has been reared in a family where education was supposedly given the very highest priority. Doesn't this single fact speak volumes in support of the point I was trying to make: that education these days does nothing to make mentally alert and active human beings?