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Wednesday, March 31, 2010

National treasures?

This editorial in today’s edition of The Telegraph gladdened my heart as few things do these days. I have immediately shot off the following congratulatory email to them:


I have been reading The Telegraph since the day it was born, and no editorial ever made me so happy as today's first - Icon Fever (TT, Wednesday, March 31). It so happens that I have been harping on the selfsame theme for more than a quarter century in my humble capacity as a teacher, to no avail. Judging by their icons, Indians have grown immensely smaller indeed. They don't seem to be even aware of it, leave alone feel ashamed, more's the pity. And it all stems not only from a total confusion between ideas of greatness, excellence and mere popularity, as you quite rightly say, but the fact that we can no longer imagine that without material success of a large sort, anybody can deserve respect or emulation. The lot of the Satyen Bose, Ramkinkar Baij and Bibhuti Banerjee types was bad enough in their own time, but it would have been far worse today, because to the hardship of penury would have been added the humiliation of near-universal contempt and ridicule. And that speaks volumes about how much this country has 'progressed' in the last half century, culturally and morally speaking. Good to see that your editorial writer takes the role of conscience keeper seriously sometimes. More power to your elbow.

Yours truly,


Aakash said...

Dear Sir,

Carrying on from what you've written, I sometimes feel that ours is a generation tired of its past achievements. Being part of this myself, and seeing people around me, it seems that all of us want greatness to be within our reach. And this seems to have taken a turn for the perverse.

Do tell me what you think about this.

With regards,


Suvro Chatterjee said...

You're quite right, Aakash, except that the thing started long ago, in the west at least... I remember Russell writing somewhere that he was living in an age when only footballers could be called 'great'. And that must have been at least sixty or seventy years ago! Now, along with so many other regrettable imports, this mindset has washed up on our shores! We cannot accept that most of us are born to be ordinary and insignificant; we cannot find satisfaction and self-worth in giving our heart's respect to men who are infinitely beyond our reach, and perchance pulling ourselves up by the bootstraps just a little by their inspiration... so we need pedestrian heroes, who are just like us in almost every way, most definitely not superior beings, only vastly more 'successful' than we can ever hope to be, but cannot help fantasizing night and day about becoming, if only by accident. Says much about the way so many of us have been educated over the last thirty odd years, doesn't it?

devdas said...

Hello Suvro-da,
let me say that this is a hard fact.
I wish to also discuss this recent article by Ramchandra Guha in Outlook:


Titled: Ambedkar’s Desiderata

where the lines below:

"At the same time, Ambedkar would have been sharply critical of the conduct of the mainstream political parties themselves. In that final speech to the Constituent Assembly, he invoked John Stuart Mill in asking Indians not “to lay their liberties at the feet of even a great man, or to trust him with powers which enable him to subvert their institutions”. There was “nothing wrong”, said Ambedkar, “in being grateful to great men who have rendered life-long services to the country. But there are limits to gratefulness”. His worry was that in India, “bhakti or what may be called the path of devotion or hero-worship, plays a part in its politics unequalled in magnitude by the part it plays in the politics of any other country in the world. Bhakti in religion may be a road to the salvation of the soul. But in politics, bhakti or hero-worship is a sure road to degradation and to eventual dictatorship.”

best regards,
debasish das.

Shilpi said...

Many thanks for this post Suvro da, and for providing the link to the editorial.
Some points come to my mind:
1. That difference amongst greatness, excellence, and popularity is something crucial.

2. I wonder, and this also relates to your post on 'Values and Prices' and 'Oh Democracy' – why some people do not make a decent amount of money in return for what they give, and why some others do. Why should some great people, inspite of their talents and their brilliance, be made to live (as you point out) in a state of penury while very insignificant people stand to make millions for no reason? - I've never quote understood this.

3. I don't see anything wrong in aiming for and working toward greatness. In fact it would be a worthy enterprise. Greatness is not something that is measurable by fame or popularity but by one’s own thoughts and work (although people may indeed disagree with me). I see nothing perverse in desiring and then working toward being a great writer, a great social thinker, a great teacher, a great scientist, a sage, a musician, a poet, or even a great athlete (as opposed to a merely popular one).

4. But do people these days even aspire for greatness let alone work for it ?( I’ll leave aside the question of talent for the time being, although that is important). I doubt it. Riches and wealth are desirable (not many thoughts as to where they might come from) and some sort of a celebrity status. And this is exactly what I’ve noted for the longest time. Being an instant hit doesn’t seem to take much. One doesn’t always have to work toward it – one can ‘have’ it. Greatness cannot be acquired so simply. One must work toward it. What most human beings want however, is immediate success, the popularity – not greatness, and maybe that is what leads us to search for and worship ‘pedestrian heroes’.

5. But my other thought is - yes indeed I may be doomed to live an insignificant and ordinary life and it might indeed be very difficult to accept, but that by itself would not lead me to worship pedestrian heroes. One would with greater strength admire and indeed wonder about the great individuals that one has read about or heard about or seen – because greatness does not lose its charm, its capacity to generate respect, awe, and love does not collapse within the length of a single season. If nothing else one can take solace in the fact that the world has not been filled to the brim with ordinary, insignificant, petty and mindless individuals but some great beings as well, and that they can inspire those of us who so wish to be inspired, in whatever way we can be. So I still don’t understand why there is such a burst of worshipping these pedestrian heroes (and as far as I’ve heard David Beckham does seem to be a very popular icon in England although Tom Cruise was replaced long ago)…unless it’s some sort of an elaborate process of cultural manipulation to make human beings aspire for things that matter less and where the general population too is caught up in the loop.

I’ll end this humongous comment for now but will knock loudly again, and with some questions the next time.
Take care.

Navin said...

Hi akash,

Yours is a comment which I could not agree with more and I congratulate you for your point of view.

Sir, ofcourse has been saying these things at least since the time I know him and as I understand from his post, long before I was conscious. Here is where I think the role of reading classics and other books comes in shaping up a culture of people. Great literature and knowing your history acutely goes a long way in setting standards which one should espouse for. We educated indians have indeed forgotten great work which has come out of India and elsewhere and we seem to be pretty proud of that fact.

Here I would like to mention one advice which I think statistically is the most frequent advice which Sir has given, i.e " read books, read at least the classics"


arnab said...

Thank you so much sir for posting the link to such a wonderful article! Once in my friend circle, I had said something negative about our so-called 'dada'.Those very friends had seemed to pounce on me at that moment like an enemy would do! KKR loses every 1 out of every 3, but dada doesn't get the blame since he is our 'idol'! No wonder why the great leaders of our past have been erased from even our history books. And for this very fact i think, after reading so many books on my personal icon, Swami Vivekananda, I have not found anyone till date with whom i can gladly share those books, for they don't have the patience to hear me for more than a couple minutes when I make an effort to share my thoughts about his ideals.Really, it seems some of us are unlucky to be born in the wrong era.

Suvro Chatterjee said...

While agreeing broadly with Ambedkar's views, Debashis, I shall contend that true greatness is so pure and wonderful a concept that no one can be polluted or defiled but only edified and ennobled in contact with it. I have in mind people like Vivekananda and Tagore here: how could one be 'too devoted' to such titans of the mind and spirit? How can a nation which is led by the standards and ideals laid down by such men go anywhere but forward? But given the kind of social milieu we are living in, Arnab, I fear I may defile the memories of such men by even bringing them into our discussions...if those men came alive, and we didn't lynch them at once, could we look them in the eye? I can only sadly echo Shilpi: 'Do people these days even aspire for greatness, let alone work for it?'

Vaishnavi said...

Dear Sir,

Thanks a lot for sharing the editorial. I have never given this more than a passing thought but I have found it very silly that television channels these days hold icon contests. Who is the greatest Sachin Tendulkar, Amitabh Bachan or Ambani? I sort of feel that people are reluctant to do more than just skim the surface of things. Great men become just another chapter in text books. It is not for me to say perhaps who is great and who isn't but there is something called a sensible view isn't in spite of allowance for sensible perceptions?

devdas said...

Hello Suvro-da,
I am not sure what is meant by the intensity of true devotion. I am still searching and I am not sure I shall be able to find it in my mortal existence.
I have a video to share:
and while listening I felt that aspiration of any kind is useless and futile unless it leads to Thee.

best wishes,

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Well, Debashis, thanks for the video. As for your musing, I can only talk about my devotion to Tagore, whom I have heard aptly being called chiropother shongi...