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Saturday, March 26, 2011

Excited? Enjoying yourself?

There are a lot of Americanisms in vogue which must seem execrable to any discerning mind with an educated respect for language. Calling everything from your girlfriend to your last holiday to your ice-cream ‘great’ or ‘awesome’ is among them. Of late, ‘enjoy’ and ‘excited’ have entered my yuck-list.

While I yield to none in my appetite for enjoyment, and I entirely agree that being occasionally excited is a very good thing, because it keeps you healthy in body and young in mind, you can have too much of a good thing. These days the papers and television and roadside billboards are offering you ‘exciting’ offers on everything from shaving blades to apartments – and I notice with dismay that on the official Google blog that I follow, they seem to be ‘excited’ every day about some trifling new innovation they have launched. They may be gifted in everything from math to marketing, but there is no doubt whatever that they are linguistically challenged! Firstly, no healthy-minded person either needs or wants to be excited all the time: it would be such a bore. Secondly, we don’t really want people we trust with our money and lives and much else with to be excited (and therefore absent-minded and careless) when they are at work, do we? – Just think of your doctor, banker, your child’s teacher or the traffic policeman. And thirdly, staying excited for too long just isn’t possible without damaging your nervous system: a scientist trying to prove a theory or a writer penning a book might take months or years, and while one needs true passion if one has to do such arduous things, one cannot stay continuously ‘excited’ for all that time without falling sick or going out of one’s mind!

As for enjoyment, if some of us are still capable of recalling that the word originally meant feeling joy, one can only weep to see how vulgarly and meaninglessly it is bandied around by everyone everywhere nowadays. More and more it seems that one can only enjoy things (cars, mobiles, hairdos, jewellery, food, whatever) rather than feelings, and even worse, one cannot even enjoy things any more, but only the act of buying them! So my wardrobe bursts with clothes I hardly wear, I rarely listen to anything on the obscenely expensive music system, and I simply cannot understand people who claim to be able to enjoy a lot of things for which they have spent only trifling amounts or none at all – reading books, painting pictures, singing songs, playing games with friends on the field, helping people to do things that they cannot do very well by themselves, watching birds and butterflies, flowers and sunsets and chortling children; making or repairing things of household use with their own hands, exercising, taking long walks and lazing on the grass on balmy winter afternoons, having good conversations, falling asleep after a hard day… the list is endless. What I see instead is that the less people find true enjoyment the more frantic they become to find it, and the more they are convinced that all they need for it is to make and squander even more money… so cheap have these words become that they have to assure you that they are really excited, they truly enjoyed themselves, because excited and enjoyed have become so debased by mindless overuse that they have ceased to mean anything by themselves at all.

There are, I feel more and more often, far more poor people in this world – poor in the sense of lost and unhappy – than there have been ever before. And they are overwhelmingly to be found among the moneyed classes, the only people simultaneously stupid, lazy and solvent enough for advertisers to have brainwashed them into believing that nirvana can be found in the shopping mall!

(I was prompted to write this after reflecting on Rashmi’s comment on my last post, where she mused upon how she found simple and hard-up rural folks to be far happier than their urban ‘superiors’. Thanks, Rashmi, for stirring my grey cells). 

Saturday, March 19, 2011

The crying need for quality

And now, to answer some queries about why I put up a series of essays in quick succession on this blog.

Essentially my purpose was not to show my readers only what good writing means (and what even very young people can accomplish if they really put their hearts and minds into it) but what I feel about the question of quality. I wonder how many readers have already guessed that larger purpose by themselves, so let me elaborate…

Quality is supremely important. Not only where the quality of our work and produce affects other people – such as with a surgeon to whom the patient surrenders himself totally when he goes under the knife, or when a pupil studies with a master (very few people can do more short-term harm than a surgeon, and more long-term damage than a teacher), or when we expect a judge to pass sentence, or a bureaucrat to really serve the public, or when a cook serves up a meal. It is indeed true that a lot of people can become successful in the short term without aiming for high quality (especially in countries like India where the public expects little, and so official quality standards are notoriously lax) – witness so many bad doctors and teachers flourishing, at least in terms of earnings – but in a country full of people giving shoddy service, everyone ultimately suffers (even the millionaire cannot trust the surgeon, the teacher or the policeman to do his best on his own, without threats or bribes, and sometimes even with them), and the country acquires a bad name which is very hard to live down (travel guides routinely warn foreign tourists to beware of touts of every kind, to bargain hard everywhere and never to drink anything but bottled or boiled water in this country…). The millions who are brought up to get through exams somehow (which means just getting mediocre marks by last-minute cramming and cheating) cannot later figure out why, though they have done all the right things (such as getting BTech and MBA degrees), they either cannot find good jobs, or why they get pink slips so frequently, or why pay rises and promotions are so slow in coming: they console themselves with many ‘explanations’, but rarely does it occur to them that something might be lacking in the quality of their work which makes them less than valuable to their employers (though I think they do have some vague idea, which is why in all but traditional business families, there is a desperation to land salaried jobs somehow. When one is self-employed, one is much more strongly compelled to live up to some minimal quality standards all the time or perish, because the customers will go elsewhere otherwise. Salaried jobs are far more secure. Schoolteachers can sleep or chatter nonsense through classes with much more impunity than private tutors can).

This, rather than mere difference in per capita incomes, is what really sets the ‘advanced’ countries apart. A lot of NRIs aver that even high salaries cannot lure them back home, now that they have got used to a much more high-quality lifestyle, measured by a thousand little things that add up to something big – how clean, quiet, green and much safer their neighbourhoods are, how much faster things work even in government offices, how much more conscientious everyone is about doing their own work well, everyone from doctors to domestic helps, how much more convenient things are for all kinds of people (such as the disabled), and so on. Quality makes for national advancement as no mere jump in per capita income can, or else Kuwait would have been considered an advanced nation at par with, say, Switzerland or Germany. Yet, unfortunately, not only do we not pay adequate attention to quality enhancement in this country, I fear this attention level has actually been going down on the whole in recent times. Till the 1980s, you could only go to dirt cheap government hospitals to get poor quality treatment; now you are allowed to pay through your nose to get the same in supposedly high-class hospitals. That’s progress for you! Worse, even people who have doggedly kept up high standards of product or performance rarely get the kind of respect and reward they deserve – whether it be Kashmiri carpet weavers or Mumbai’s dabbawallahs (still poor and low-class despite all the attention paid to them by some American business schools) or the rare rural schoolteacher who struggles to keep the lamp burning against almost impossible odds…

But attention to quality is very important even at the private, individual level: something that is much more poorly understood by today’s young people, I fear, than in an earlier time. Whether you paint houses or sing, write computer programs or teach a language or look after handicapped children, if you can tell yourself you have worked long and hard and become really good at something, that you can do something much better than most others you know, you can take a quiet pride in yourself – no matter whether the world recognizes you adequately or not. Unlike most people who have never tried to be better than the rest, you can take leave of this life when your time comes with the satisfaction that you have not lived entirely in vain, you were something better than a mere replaceable cog in a wheel, you did make a difference to some people and are leaving behind an ideal to live up to. Without that self-assurance, one is condemned, as so many people are today, to wallow in misery because they always feel inadequate, unwanted, incomplete, worthless … and try to make up for it by being rude to all and sundry, and boasting of their pay packets, and filling up their homes with all sorts of consumer products that they don’t have any need for in the hope that adequate possession of trash will someday give them that sense of identity and self-worth that they so desperately, if unconsciously crave.

It is, of course, good to be adequately recognized and rewarded – I won’t indulge in negative snobbery by making the absurd claim that only material failure proves that you were good at what you did! – but one must simply accept that that does not happen as one might wish: one person reaps enormous rewards (fame and money included), while another just somehow makes both ends meet and remains obscure, while yet another goes under ‘unwept, unhonour’d and unsung’, although all three might have been gifted people who always tried to give of their best. That is called fate. It just so happens that cricketers are far better rewarded than hockey players, and surgeons far more than musicians (and that, too, differs greatly from one age to another, one country to another… what can you do about it?). Rewards may also be a long time coming: lawyers, writers and actors know all about that! But nothing can be nationally more suicidal than everybody aiming at ‘sure and quick’ if modest success, such as by becoming engineers, at the price of sacrificing everything else that is worth aiming for: job satisfaction, social usefulness and self-esteem being high on the list. For one thing, a country needs good carpenters, musicians, nurses and writers at least as much as it needs good engineers and doctors (to paraphrase the US thinker and senator John Gardner); for another, merely becoming an engineer is nothing unless you can respect yourself for the quality of work that you deliver; you are merely adding a digit to the vast horde of mediocrities who neither contribute anything of much substance to their milieu nor can ever talk of ‘worth’ beyond their pay packets – and therefore can only get very angry when people talk about other yardsticks.

The most horrible consequence of a country filling up with such people is that everybody’s standards tend to get lowered to their level, so money becomes the only means of judging a person’s ‘value’ … and call-centre operators start looking more ‘successful’ than movie directors unless the latter make a lot of money, and I am considered a good teacher only if I can visibly make a lot of money teaching!

Let me stop at this point, and let my readers think. I hope I have managed to get the idea across – that it was not just about writing good essays, but wanting to be good at whatever one does. Only, I do believe, when all is said and done, that language was the greatest invention ever, and knowing how to use a language well is  one of the greatest of achievements by far, deserving of admiration even if one cannot do it very well oneself. Those who believe otherwise are sliding towards a new Dark Age, however technologically sophisticated and materially comfortable that might be…

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Writing an essay, part three

And now, reproduced herebelow is  a ‘good’ essay that someone wrote as homework for my class about ten years ago.

I see the world through their eyes

I have the bad habit of rising late, and someone usually has to shake me awake in the mornings. One of my parents does the job, reminding me every time of all my faults and follies, which make me grumble as I brush my teeth. But by the time I leave for school, relations have sweetened up again.

I have mixed feelings about the way my parents treat me. The most common is anger – but strangely enough, it only serves to make the bonds stronger. I still cannot dream of taking a step in this world without holding on to the fingers of those who taught me to walk. It is through their eyes that I still see the world. My parents are the very staff and prop of my life.

I am fortunate to have parents like my father and mother. I wouldn’t exchange them for anybody else. Their influences on me are equally strong: if daddy taught me the consonants of life, mummy taught me the vowels. But I do take sides in their quarrels sometimes – generally only to have some fun, or get one of them to do my bidding.

It is not as if I always think positively of my parents: far from it. There are things about them that I strongly dislike. Why do they always have to be austere about trivial things like buying me a chocolate, for instance? And in matters such as this, it is my mother who invariably takes the tougher line and yells at me. Father is milder, but sometimes he has to make a token show of anger to stay in mummy’s good books. Thank God he cools down almost at once!

I think my parents worry too much about me. Granted, at times they have good reason, but often they get worked up needlessly. They insist on supervising my homework, as if I were still a child. What does it matter if I sometimes want to take time off studies to read a comic book? Also, they take the privileged position to decide everything for me. I feel like stuffing my ears with cotton wool when they launch upon one of their pet sermons about how to be a ‘good girl’. I am sure they are just repeating the moral lessons that their parents preached to them, and I’m sure in their own time they were not much better children than I am – at least, if all that my grandparents tell me about their childhood mischiefs are true! Why do parents always think that they know best about everything?

I have devised ways to get around them, too, and amazingly, they often work. When I know that my mother wants me to buy the red dress and I want the blue one, I just demand the red dress, and instantly, my mother changes her mind – I must have the blue dress, and that’s final! I wear an annoyed look, but give in with secret relief. We are not such simple creatures as our poor parents think.

Yet for all that I respect and obey my parents in all the really important things. They have made certain decisions easier for me. I cannot summarize my feelings about my parents – seeing that they fluctuate at least five times a day – but I can definitely say that I love them with all my heart, and I shall never leave the path they have shown me with so much time and patience and care.

The best that can be said for it is that it is not as unspeakably wretched as the one I posted first in this series (I did have to iron it out quite a bit before it was presentable as it reads here, though: unlike in the best ones of yesteryear, there were faulty use of idioms and inappropriate and misspelt words aplenty). But – especially when read just after the previous one (‘Memory’) – I am sure no one can disagree with me that it is bland, shallow, narrow in scope and not very memorable (besides evincing a remarkable degree of helpless and unself-conscious dependence on parents – certainly not healthy for a teenager, as any psychologist will tell you, no matter how common a type it has become in urban middle-class India today. Incidentally, the writer is a fully-qualified doctor now). Remember, this is the best that kids today can write, and only one in several hundred essays that I mark is of this quality. Also note that this level of mental ability gets most of them into engineering college, not excluding the IITs (I needn’t even mention, I suppose, those who can only make it to hotel management and BPOs…). Such people are routinely referred to as ‘talents’ in the media these days, too: and by God, you should see the size of their egos, now that they have visited Umrica once or twice and bought a car…

I am sure that, with this gigantic talent pool, India will soon produce a dazzling treasure-house of new scientific inventions, literary wonders, brilliant musical compositions, amazing works of art, ground-breaking philosophical paradigms and every other kind of creative outpouring that together make a nation great. Aren’t we on the threshold of a golden age? I think the last time it happened was when the likes of Nagarjuna, Kalidasa, Aryabhatta, Susruta, Shankaracharya, the great early geniuses of Nalanda and enlightened monarchs like Chandragupta Vikramaditya and Harshavardhana were alive and active!

Friday, March 04, 2011

Writing an essay, part two

This one comes in response to a large number of reader requests. It is a sample of the kind of essays which used to be graded as ‘excellent’ by our teachers in the olden days (meaning the 1970s).


I have a rotten memory. I forget names, directions, appointments; at times I even forget my own address. It annoys me to see people rattling off the latest stock quotations or twenty telephone numbers from memory. Poor things! Memory, I always feel, should be treated like a chest full of jewels. To use it as a lumber room for trifles is like getting a combination safe to keep one’s waste paper in it, like buying up Buckingham Palace only to break it up into tenements.
My memory, now, is like a bed of exotic flowers. Every so often, I go weeding it out. Then, when twilight breezes blow over my soul, I can step into the garden and be deliciously lost.

My memory is my own little story: a diary of my soul. If I look it up, I shall find it full of myself, like a mirror. Triumphs and glories will hail me: ‘This is you!’ Pleasure and laughter will bubble: ‘This is you!’ Defeats and bereavements will mourn: ‘This is you!’ Sin and shame will hiss: ‘This is you!’ – and all the nameless little half-sad joys of humdrum life that stand in the background like a chorus will press my hand and say: ‘This is you!’ When I want to look at myself I turn to memory: all I stand for is sure to be written there.

I sometimes wonder if others feel like that too. How does the old man feel, looking back on a life that must be (to him) a symbol of all existence as he knew it? What of the squalid sinner, whose cold black memories flow over his soul at night like a dark glacier? And what of little children, whose tiny pasts must seem to them so close to a former oblivion? But perhaps I am wrong. Perhaps the child’s short life has already filled its precocious memory with remembrances of jam cupboards that are no more? And who knows what comfort memory brings even to lonely, frightened sinners cowering by their night lights?

Memory is a postman to all men, bringing together friends half a world apart; he walks swiftly and takes no fee. What little ties of memory will bind two souls across an ocean; what love and hate will be hurled across continents through the mailbag of memory! The lonely mother hugging her memories of her lost son and the shattered victim losing sleep over memories of his accursed wrongdoer; the sweetly wistful memories of the man whose life was a poem, and the bitter memories of one who comes from the east end of life; one woman’s expectant memories of her lover soon to return and another’s weeping remembrance of one who will return no more. The mailman’s bundle is large and full. Joy, sorrow, hope, fear, love and hate – all these and more are delivered to men’s hearts by memory.

I have a rotten memory, but that won’t get me down. My head is no bin for the pettiest worldly facts. My memory is an album of precious things, sacred and intensely personal, to be shown to the world only when it is my friend.

Having been condemned to mark mountains of trash all my life (of the sort that I put up in the last post), this kind of writing takes my breath away. And it’s not just a matter of masterly grasp of language. The level of GK combined with the richness of imagination (memory as a globe-trotting postman, buying up Buckingham Palace and breaking it up into tenements, cold black memories flowing over the soul like a dark glacier), the degree of individualism that is manifest in every line (without which the most ‘successful’ man is merely a cog in some vast wheel), the depth and variety of human sympathy, the kind of visualization that can only be called poetic, the perfect sense of proportion and balance – I am certain that neither those students who are called ‘talented’ these days nor the typical ‘teacher’ of English can dream of writing something like this (mind you, being ‘good at science’ instead of what are called the ‘arts’ has nothing to do with it: Jagadish Bose, Balaichand Mukhopadhyay aka Banaphool and Conan Doyle were all students of science who could write excellently). Even the ‘best’ essays that are written these days by high-school children cannot hold a candle to this sort of stuff (I do not think any child who has grown up with orkut and Facebook and sms-chat could write something like this, and that is indubitably a loss to civilization, not compensated by LED TV and iPad). If enough readers are interested, I can put up one that I recently graded myself, just for the sake of comparison…