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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…


Shilpi said...

Suvro da,

Finished reading, ruminating, and re-reading your essay/post and now I shall proceed to write a comment: it will be long so please forgive me.

1. Attention to detail and an urge to improve ourselves and a/some sane being/s urging us to not cut corners do indeed help a great deal.
I'm reminded of two relevant bits in this context: A. What you said some/many years ago: countries/nations which have quiet, decent people doing their own jobs honestly and well have little need for heroes.
(I don't know about Kuwait being included though: they seem to have a very bad track record in how they deal with their immigrant working class population - especially Indians who land up their as contractual labourers and house-maids...and Germany, people tell me and I've read a very little bit isn't too good about treating their Turkish ethnic population even though they are born and brought up in Germany - something to do with how individuals gets to be citizens in Germany...)

B. The rather sad state of the American Health care system (to call it 'health care" seems ridiculous (inspite of no doubt other good things about this nation). Even insurance doesn't do much. I have watched other people wait for hours on end into the night to get an arm x-rayed and plastered, a friend with a dog-bite to get his wound cleaned well (and the doctor wanted to suture the wound!), a man with a bleeding head who had to wait for hours before being treated (I didn't see the man; I chatted with his friend since both of us were waiting and smoking outside)...and the thing that doesn't make any sense was that the whole emergency room was empty apart from three people...I have no idea how to make sense of the lack of "quality" although the place was of course sparkling clean and quiet and the people nice and polite...

2. Salaried jobs are definitely more secure. I sometimes wryly wonder what would happen if all professors were held to the same standards as the conscientious janitorial staff...ah well.

3. Same goes for the individual level quality bit. I am reminded of how you told me so many years ago to take care and pay attention while letter writing (typing). "Why not an old-fashioned revision after the first draft?" You'd said and gently! I can't thank you enough for it although I had duly turned beet-root red upon reading the liner (for my letters had no caps, were full to the brim of typos and hanging sentences and God-knows-what-else). It definitely made me more careful about the quality of my letters (the nicest part) but also made it easier to type up papers and other class assignments.

4. Your essay reminded me of a single liner from an otherwise forgettable movie that I watched many years ago. A father tells his son and his son's friends as they are about to graduate from High-School, "Find something you love doing and then find a way to make a living from it." It might not always work but it might and then yes, as you say - no saying how things might go but at least one will have done/do what one was/is supposed to...

5. Of course all those examples were about "quality". It seems quite obvious after you point it out...no, I didn't guess for a moment nor would I have realised that bit in bold if it hadn't been for some events in the now and through the last some weeks. But one has to be blessed - and divinely for sure - to be able to see that and feel that at a deep level...

So thank you.

About the rest - another day?


Sunup said...

Your post on quality is so apt, especially in our Indian context. Most of us, whichever field we may be in, never bother to do the old fashioned 'revision' to our first drafts. And there is another common trait, especially among we Indians, that I wish to highlight here. Many of us are exceedingly good at reviewing others work. We scrutinize it minutely for any sort of error and triumphantly announce it (errors if any) to the rest of the world. But when it comes to a self review, 98% of us are very poor at it. Strange is our race indeed.

Warm regards,


Sayan Datta said...

Dear Sir,

I can tell from a very recent experience that things, whatever they may be, should never be done in a hurry. Something as seemingly trivial as missing a letter can change the meaning of an entire sentence from something serious to something frivolous thereby reducing one to stealing a surreptitious, albeit sombre laugh at oneself.

Having said that, I wish to express that although I strongly second Sunup (or Sunupda), I think that it is of utmost importance to criticize errors (particularly the conspicuous ones) irrespective of where they occur and who commits them. This does two things - 1- It might make the guilty more aware. 2- It most certainly makes the critic more mindful, provided of course that his motive is to learn and not merely to point out errors and such a person is most likely to learn from all kinds of errors, regardless of who commits them. The practice of criticism, healthily done, is extremely beneficial, if only for the critic.

Sayan Datta

Rashmi Datta said...

Dear Sir,
Literally, I am at a loss for words. This is a post which has to be read and re-read several times so that its essence is absorbed into one's very soul. This post is a gem which only mindless people would ignore. Given a chance, I would rename it as 'The secret path to happiness and satisfaction'.
It summarises the crux of many of your posts where you have severely criticised the falling standards of education (The demise of liberal education); of doctors (Morality training for doctors?); of business administrators (Monkeys in Armani suits); of language as it is used ('Writing an essay' series);of reading habits in India (Subarnalata) to name just a few. All those people who misunderstood you thinking that you were hurling accusations only at a particular class of people should read this post.
I would like to discuss a few points here-
1. The deterioration of quality is highly conspicuous. From the ever decreasing trust on doctors to tasteless vegetables, from the rubbish that is passed on as lyrics for commercial songs to the shoes and clothes which serve their purpose for no more than a couple of months, from fools and crooks calling themselves teachers and principals to the noise which is called music nowadays, one can clearly see everything around us degrading. Similarly one can also see around us a mad race for spending money on the most unnecessary products (Imagine spending tens of lakhs on marriage celebrations, thousands of rupees on sunglasses in winter and a few hundred rupees on a cup of coffee!), mindless chatter in parties, public gatherings, and on mobile phones and social networking sites. Your posts and comments on the blog(s) and the subsequent discussions I have with Sayan had made the connection between the two phenomena very evident to me- that the depression and inadequacy rising from one's dishonesty towards work ultimately forces one to live in an illusion of happiness and satisfaction.
2. Our recent visit to the village of Kamarpada in Birbhum district made me feel as though we had entered a new world. The village resort we stayed in (a double-storied mud house) was extremely neat and tidy and the food served was home made and very tasty. The cook cum manager of the resort, the van driver, the gardener and his daughter, all of them worked hard and did their duties with utmost earnestness, making our stay extremely pleasant. Although they could not enjoy the comforts and luxuries of city folks, they seemed to be very contented and happy and full of life.
3.What disgusts me most is: even as the quality of everything around us is falling at an alarming rate, people are not only glorifying it but there also seems to be a mass propagation of some of the basest and the most repulsive ideas. I actually heard a Hindi commercial song which goes 'tension vension chodke ho ja fully faltu' (Leaving behind all the worries of life, become a completely worthless person) and an advertisement of a mobile phone brand saying 'You have it, so flaunt it'!
4.Sir, I wonder now, how this mass decline and decay began in India.What is its cause?
This post has been watching me like an invisible examiner whenever I work or don't.
"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..."
This line reminds me of a dialogue from the film 'Chariots of Fire' - "You can praise God by peeling a spud, if you can peel it to perfection..."
Thank you very much for the post, Sir.
Warm regards

Suvro Chatterjee said...

In connection with the direct economic dimension of the quality issue, look up this news article:


Debotosh Chatterjee said...

there exists a small India that can do these things : http://www.hindustantimes.com/Mr-Kumar-cleans-up/H1-Article1-702003.aspx

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Thanks for the link, Debotosh. It's heartening not only that such men as Mr. Kumar exist, but that young people like you feel enthused and inspired to read about the likes of him. I have always maintained - and made myself thoroughly unpopular among my own set by maintaining - that one public servant like him is worth a million semi-educated engineers or snooty and careless doctors for the good of this country. Incidentally, I hold identical views about cleaning up toilets myself. I am reminded of how, long ago, Fr. Wavreil (then headmaster) and I cleaned up a toilet in the school together, to the horror, consternation and shame of most of the teaching staff as much as the boys... most simply pretended that it hadn't happened, or that they hadn't noticed. Goes without saying our example was not emulated.

Amit parag said...

"Kumar has gained something of a reputation in Faridabad for being a maverick, a non-comformist, the odd one out, says Razdan"..... now this sentiment is common to all iconoclasts.

Suvro Chatterjee said...

As I have said before, writing this blog and looking up the comments (or absence thereof) has taught me a great deal over the years about what people are really like. This particular post has been here for five months, and so few have felt like writing in yet, even if only to say 'Hear, hear', or at least 'You have given me a lot to think about'!

Navin said...

Dear Sir,

This is another great post of yours. Firstly I should thank you for taking the trouble to put up the three essays before this post. I do think that you put up those essays after our email conversation.
You have also made your point quite well, about the need for maintaining a certain quality about one's work always.

You have also admirable demonstrated this ideal in your life and more importantly I am sometimes amazed at your zeal to push yourself to doing things, despite your achievements and abilities. It requires tremendous stamina to continuously maintain quality, and one has to be very aware of all aspects of their life, like health, emotions,memory, relationships, happiness, money and moral courage.
Most of us have had moments in which we have the quiet contentment of doing something well, but for most of our life, we do not carry the necessary zeal to push ourselves in all aspects of our life.

Your message is well received and thank you again for all of your efforts.