And now, to answer some queries about why I put up a series of essays in quick succession on this blog.
tially 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… Essen
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 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). India
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
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 Kuwait n business schools) or the rare rural schoolteacher who struggles to keep the lamp burning against almost impossible odds… America
But attention to quality is very important even at the private,
ividual 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 ind er 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. nev
It is, of course, good to be adequately recognized and rewarded – I won’t
ulge 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 ind h: 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 wis 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. US
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…