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Thursday, January 06, 2011

Change resistant, am I?

Quite a few people have told me that they have been reading this blog all through last year. I should like them to let me know which posts they found most interesting/touching/informative or thought-provoking.

Some people are born conservative-minded, and most people grow more resistant to change as they grow old. Someone reminded me of this recently, probably hinting that I had better watch out if I didn’t want my public image to get cemented as a stick-in-the-mud, who hates all kinds of change and wants desperately to hang on to old-fashioned ways.

Well, indeed, I have never been excited by change for the sake of change (so I’ve always laughed at fashion trends, and I’d go on wearing the same old jacket as long as it doesn’t look shabby). I also ignore a lot of change around me as essentially trivial (as I have done with Facebook and twitter after giving them a year’s trial) no matter how big a noise they make, and I do believe that a lot of things about old-fashioned ways are worth conserving (like good manners and museums, and teachers taking pains to drill their pupils in math or grammar, and giving marriage a very long trial before breaking up…). But I think those who imagine me to be an inveterate change-resister simply don’t know me, and if I make out a very short list of changes that I wish to see in my lifetime, many of them, supposedly eager votaries of change, may quickly and quietly decide that they cannot stomach so much drastic change after all. So here’s a tentative wish-list at the start of a new year. I’d like to see

1.      that war is officially banned everywhere, and only the UN is allowed to keep a standing army;
2.      that in no country (especially where there are large numbers of poor people still) are multi-million dollar incomes allowed by law, nor giant inheritances;
3.      that no one, not even the most competent technician (by which I mean everyone from doctors, accountants, engineers and managers to plumbers and carpenters) is allowed to call himself educated unless duly authorized colleges certify that s/he has also had a thorough grounding in the humanities (which would include compulsory reading and assignments on a very considerable amount of literature in at least two languages);
4.      that in no society are parents any longer allowed to drill it into the minds of children that monogamous one-time marriage between two members of the opposite sexes is the only ‘nice and normal’ thing to go for once one grows up;
5.      that mandatory speed governors be installed on all motor vehicles which ply on municipal roads and busy highways;
6.      that worship of money (rather than achievement or accomplishment of any significant kind) would automatically brand every man and woman as uncivilized;
7.      that conversely, everyone who puts ideals like beauty and justice and freedom far above money and machines be automatically accorded the tag of civilized – as indeed every ‘great’ society from Periclean Athens to Gupta-era India to the Tang era in China to 18th century France has actually done;
8.      that the pursuit of science and art and teaching are again accorded the status they deserve, which is that they are the pursuits of the best of men for the highest social good, and not merely ways of making a living;
9.      that Singapore- and Switzerland-style laws against littering and noise and vandalism be enacted and enforced in every city in the world;
10.  that every able-bodied man and woman give mandatory national social service for at least two years of his or her life within the first thirty years (the kind of thing they do in Israel, and the kind of thing the NCC and NSS were started in India for).

… and that is only a small part of all the changes I should like to see. Now then, change, anybody?


Shilpi said...

Suvro da,

Avatar : For the connections and the macroscopic picture.

Serving up On request: The connections amongst things that are normally seen as being separate.

Great Fighter Aircraft and…A father’s woe, Not impressed, Daughter’s new blog, Four Years, Auld Lang Syne: Touching among other things (the last one is also bewildering and the third one is very sharp).

Death, Cynicism and Skepticism, Waking Nightmare: To be read together. Thought provoking doesn’t even begin to encapsulate their content.

A Guilty conscience: Thought-provoking – yes; comforting too in an unusual way, yes, and then incisive because of your comments on the post.

Fathers, Old Posts, and other things: Disturbing and if one goes back to the old post - one will wonder where one begins to write a comment. Better to try to absorb it fully (if one can) and comment only afterwards when one feels competent enough. That's what I felt, and God knows I'm not given to thinking I'm stupid.

New Old Penguins: Deeply Interesting and it made me go and read the book, which I’d yawned over many/some years ago - and it didn't make me yawn at all this time…and your post made me pick out another book too.

Subarnalata: Unsettling.

Education: The first essay should be there in the introduction of school and college text-books. And the second one is personal: Makes me feel less of a mad hatter.

Nerds: ...whimsical somewhat, and genuinely a little confusing for me at one level.

Neverland: Joyous but there is some sadness there (maybe in how I read it?).

Millennial Musing: Made me go pore over the net (!), read up on forgotten barely remembered bits of history. Head-scratching post.

Santa Claus: Stirs hope in the heart even though one may be afraid.

Goodbye Twenty-ten (for some reason the two on my keyboard is not working).

And this post itself – brilliant it is; it also makes me say, “what a magnificent waste…”
Count me in, please. I’m all in. Your points remind me of certain other essays and letters that you've written elsewhere (to give one example: the first one is something you've dealt with at length in your essay "East and West", and it's something I'd felt about strongly when I was in college). I still hope and wish and have the strength to believe that your writings can be disseminated to a wider, educated, and thoughtful audience.

There are others. But this is a selection.

I'm proud to know you and if I may say so I'm proud that you have a link on your blog to one of my own posts.

Thank you, Suvro da. Take care...

Regards and prayers,

Sunup said...

Dear Sir,

Thanks for this exercise, for it made me go through all your posts this past year once again. Most your posts are different from one another and offer some sort of insight and enlightenment to the serious reader. For me, the one that stood out was your excellent translation of Mr. Parimal Sengupta's Happy New Havate in the post titled 'A gem of a wit', which you had posted almost an year ago. The sarcasm in the article was genuine and applies not only to the Bengali society, but any present day society for that matter.
And Sir, regarding the wish-list -- forgive me for saying so, but I find the first two too Utopian.

Warm regards

Amit parag said...

This post might at least guarantee you an army of enemies!

Saikat Chakraborty said...

Dear Sir,
I think every sane and sensible person would like to see the changes mentioned by you.Apart from what you have said,I would also like to add a few-
1>We must help a victim(be it of an accident or crime) instead of overlooking the matter and then talking about it at the dinner table.
2>Women should be treated as human beings(and not as objects)by all in every sphere of life.
3>People who scribble their names and other rubbish on historical monuments and other places should be barred from visiting such places or else such places must be closed for the general public.
As for you,Sir,I can say that you are the last person who can be branded as change resistant,if the change is for the better.For example,I have not seen anyone using the internet so productively (through blogs etc) like you whereas you grew up in an age where there was no internet.
Take care,Sir.
With regards,

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Sad, but not surprising that despite so many visits there have been so few comments yet.This was a subject that would have required not only some serious thought, but some knowledge (and well-formed opinions based on that knowledge) of the world. Not commodities that are commonly available these days.

Yes, I did write about wishes that might sound utopian (or shocking, or even incomprehensible) to a lot of people. In this context, I wish to point out that many utopian dreams have indeed come true; slavery exists no more (unthinkable 200 years ago),the Soviet Union has vanished (unthinkable 50 years ago). My purpose was to prove that I can indeed think of, and wish for, much bigger changes than those who think that nothing can be bigger than the arrival of Facebook. Also, it is I think better to have big dreams than petty ones: I'd rather dream of a world without war than buying a new car or getting 3G on my mobile. As a very wise woman said long ago (I wonder how many readers can tell me who it was), nalpe sukhamasti, bhumaiva sukham to a king who wanted to give her a gift: unlike you, I am not happy with trifles; if you want to make me happy, give me the universe. Or else let me be; don't impose your dwarfish standards on me!

Pritam Mukherjee said...

Dear Sir,

I agree with most of the changes you have talked about, though there are a few points I would like to make -

1. that besides banning wars, destroying the existing stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction - nuclear, chemical and biological - is also necessary.
2. that the UN security council should admit more countries to avoid possible abuse of the UN's standing army
3. that while I see the point in making multi-million dollar incomes illegal, I think it might not be completely just from an individual's perspective - there might be a few intelligent and hardworking and visionary people who deserve huge incomes and denying them what they deserve by law might be unjust. I instead dream of a world where there is no concept of money and people work only to better themselves and the rest of humanity (the Star Trek captain Jean Luc Picard's world). I understand that it might seem even more Utopian but I think it may be possible in the future when we have ensured that the basic necessities like food, shelter and energy are no longer scarce and are freely accessible to all.
3. that while I agree that education cannot be complete without a firm grounding in the humanities, requiring a college degree might be too much to ask. First I do not put much faith on college degrees and second, it would be akin to asking that every student with a degree in humanities should also have a college degree in at least two science disciplines, in order to call himself/herself educated - I am not sure it is even feasible.

Aside from these, I fully agree with the rest of your points. Indeed I think that no one would worship money any more if some day, the necessities like food, clothing , shelter and energy are freely accessible to everyone, and ideals like beauty, freedom and justice will be the driving force for mankind. I guess that will be the day when humanity will earn the right to call itself civilized.

Shilpi said...


Nuclear weapons would become redundant if wars were banned everywhere in the real sense. There would be no point in piling up on weapons.

There is nothing unjust about it. Only when we realise and fully realise that a happy society is tied to one's individual peace of mind as well will we get rid of the idea that it's all right for multi-millionaries to exist in very poor societies (and multi-millionaries who give absolutely nothing back!) Even in very rich countries - individuals have realised that giving back is what makes sense. With all the different problems in the US - this is something I have been deeply impressed by. It starts at the local level. In the university - libraries, the cultural centre, the gym, the swimming pool - would not have been possible at the level and scale without individual donations (and yes, one may raise some points about that). Indeed the university itself was initially established at a small scale - true - but made possible by the donations of one man - John Purdue. And think about the other blog-posts right here on this blog(the one on Karl Rabedar and Chen Shu-chu, the one titled "Look..." and the one titled "Charity.."). The problem is in thinking about this problem in terms of abstracts. Look at the picture on the latest blog-post. Do you think it's unfair to say that it's criminal that the same country should boast of billionaires?

Money itself is merely the means of exchange. The problem lies in making it the end. Money itself becomes innately valuable. There lies the problem. Money itself if treated the way it should be doesn't lead to the social ills that we have. And the rich and the middle-class have more than enough money, and also their basic needs are adequately fulfilled. So why do these classes then worship money and more and more goods, which don't, after a point seem to be doing much good?

There's absolutely no reason to think that people who are fond of calling themselves educated should not know their literature, their history, their philosophy, and their science (as opposed to mere technical information). There are other examples I'm sure but think about people like Russell, Einstein, Will Durant, Asimov, H.G. Wells, and yes Tagore and the blog-author. Just because we've adopted some midget standards worldwide - does it mean that we have the right to call ourselves educated or knowledgeable? This is precisely the reason that I never make the mistake of calling myself educated.

As for your question, Suvro da - I can grin happily and say that I know. But only because you mentioned the breath-taking quote some 7 years ago, and told me who said it. It is the ancient sage Kshana.

On the other hand I don't have a clue as to what a 3G mobile is, don't care to find out, and am delighted about my ignorance.

Pritam Mukherjee said...

I guess you are right - once war is banned there would be no need for weapons and hence they would probably be destroyed.

But on the issue of banning millionaires I still do not agree. I agree with you that the key to change lies not in money itself, but rather the way it is used and that the rich should be convinced that giving back to the society is the proper thing to do - the attitude of the rich towards money and society should change. Only I wonder whether banning millionaires will bring about this change. And from the perspective of a millionaire who has toiled day and night for say, 30 years, to raise himself from poverty, a law banning millionaires would, no doubt, seem quite unfair. One can, of course, make a law banning million-dollar inheritances - in that way one can implement equality of opportunity - but trying to achieve an equitable distribution of wealth by limiting the acquisition of wealth, rather than trying to enrich the poor, seems wrong to me. Besides, even if millionaires are banned, there would still be some rich people and some poor people. Maybe the disparity between the rich and the poor would have reduced in absolute terms,but it would hardly be of much consequence unless the attitudes of the rich people change. Of course, one can argue that the excess money acquired by the government from the erstwhile millionaires will be used to benefit the poor, but then the money can be acquired in other ways too - like imposing higher taxes maybe and/or encouraging the rich to give back to the society by giving tax benefits or other means. Banning millionaires outright seems far too extreme a measure to me.

I agree that people who wish to call themselves educated must know their literature, history, philosophy and science. I never disputed that. I was only opposed to requiring college degrees in each of these subjects to prove one's education. And anyway, even if none, but the likes of Russel, Einstein, Tagore and the owner of this blog, is allowed to call oneself educated, what good would it be, except maybe a lesson in modesty for the rest of the people - there is hardly a sharp line between being educated and being uneducated ; there will still be varying degrees of education from being illiterate to being educated. A very small proportion of the population will call themselves educated, the others won't have that right, but then it is only a matter of nomenclature - what difference does it really make? On the other hand, when my life is in the hands of the surgeon standing beside me while I lie helpless on the surgery table, I would hardly care whether he is learned in Kant's philosophy, but rather I would worry about whether he he/she has sufficient technical knowledge and expertise to conduct the surgery safely - how does it matter whether he/she can call himself/herself educated or not? So in a way, I am satisfied enough if all the technicians (including doctors, engineers, accountants and plumbers) were really adroit in their own specific fields. Of course, knowledge of history and philosophy and science (by the way, I do not think one can be a good engineer or doctor without knowing the relevant science - one can hardly be a good doctor without knowing human physiology, nor can an electrical engineer get away without any knowledge of electromagnetism), would be an added bonus and, no doubt, highly desirable. I do not think that mandating that only sufficiently qualified people (say, D.Sc s and D.Litt s) can call themselves 'educated' would make much of a difference in real life.

Suvro Chatterjee said...

But nobody is asking you to agree at once with everything I wrote, Pritam! I am old enough to know that a lot of people who keep things I said at the back of their heads come round to seeing how right I was ages later... sometimes they tell me so a decade or two afterwards. Take your time. I won't waste words trying to persuade you further. Only, be assured that I know I am right, it is not 'just' a matter of opinion.

Sayan Datta said...

I apologize beforehand for speaking out of turn here, but I find a few of Pritam’s remarks a mite disconcerting.

Firstly, he seems to ignore the fact that more often than not money is made by trampling on the rights of the poor and unprivileged, at least in our country.

Secondly, I think it is a bit naïve and dangerous to believe that ‘visionaries’ deserve huge incomes and the earlier a person is disabused of such a notion the better. The only exception that can be made, perhaps, is when it is known that the society is to gain from the actions of such ‘people with prescience’ and that they are acting solely as benefactors. On the other hand amassing wealth for personal benefit needs to be discouraged. An intelligent and hard-working person working merely with money as the only objective will cease to remain a visionary, at least in my eyes. In any case, all the visionaries that I know of have always detested wealth for its own sake; sometimes unnerved and unapologetic in spite of the utter lack of it in their own lives. It stands to reason then that multi-million dollar incomes and inheritances are banned to prevent the pursuit of wealth as if it were the sole motto of existence.

Thirdly, I think the reason why Sir says that a thorough grounding in the Humanities should be made mandatory is because, to put it simply, it makes us human. And while I will not wonder about whether my doctor is well-versed in a particular philosophical line of thought or not, I will certainly worry about whether be is human enough to be a doctor in the first place. One only has to look around to take a glimpse of the crescendo of their strident demands, their absolute disregard for ethical practices, so much so that even the term has now become a complete anathema to many and their treatment of patients as if they were herds of cattle. About four to five years ago my own father was advised to undergo an operation he didn’t really need and he would have had to dish out a good twenty-thirty thousand rupees for it!

I will welcome criticisms if anything is factually or logically wrong in all that I have said so far.

Sayan Datta

Pritam Mukherjee said...

Dear Sir,

I apologize if I seem arrogant, but I think Sayan's (or is it Sayanda's) comment deserves a response.

First let me clarify my position on banning millionaires once more. I am sure there are many rich people who have grown rich by exploiting the poor. I fully support punishing such people for their crimes, and making safeguards by law to prevent such exploitation in future - I suspect some such safeguards exist even today - maybe they need to be enforced better. I just do not like the idea of banning the rich just because they are rich, irrespective of how they came be to so. And also, I do not think that a honest man, who has acquired his wealth by honest means needs your approval to lay claim to his wealth.

Secondly, I agree that everyone should study Humanities for one's own moral and intellectual development. But I would not go as far as to claim that a person's humanity can be judged by whether he/she has a college degree in Humanities, nor would I claim conversely, that any person well versed in Humanities (has a college degree in Humanities from the best of colleges, say) is 'human'. I believe a person's humanity should be judged from his wisdom and compassion, not by some college degrees (especially in an age and country when education is the third most corrupt sector). And yes, you would certainly want your doctor to be ethical but believe me, a college course on Business Ethics,say will hardly make a corrupt doctor ethical. So to reiterate my present stance, while a college degree in Humanities is certainly desirable,it is not essential, at least for being 'human'.

And let me thank you, Sir for your patience and for all that you have taught me - not only the English language, but, more importantly perhaps, a way to think. No other person has had as much influence on my thoughts and beliefs as you have had, except maybe my parents, and please do not think that I am trying to flatter you when I say you are the best teacher I have met so far in my life. I thank you and I salute you 'O Captain! My Captain!'


Suvro Chatterjee said...

No question of arrogance, Pritam. But you are taking the college-certification idea too literally: I had expected the likes of you to understand what I really mean.

As for the other issue, I did say the best thing would be to take your time (a whole decade or two of personal experience, if need be) and find out for yourself whether I was right or wrong! But, to clarify a little what both Sayan and I mean, reflect that most very-large incomes come from either vast inherited wealth, which the owner has done nothing to deserve except being lucky enough to have a rich dad, or from other lucky breaks like winning big lotteries, or from businesses where fraud and downright crime play a very large role in making quick and big money: all you need to do to check this out is to read the commercial pages of any newspaper daily for a while. The proportion of people who make money by sheer talent and hard work of a socially harmless kind (like say, sports- and movie stars, and scientific inventors) is tiny. And even in their case multi-million dollar incomes cannot be justified, unless you are saying that other kinds of talents do not deserve the kind of reward that these people get - the kind of talent that, say, Ustad Bismillah Khan, Satyen Bose, Ramkinkar Baij and Bibhuti Banerjee had (all of them brilliant men who died poor). Are you willing to say that Sachin Tendulkar deserves big money but Satyen Bose didn't?

There are other arguments too. But if this much doesn't make you think, I shall not belabour the point any further: let us agree to disagree.