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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.