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Wednesday, April 27, 2011

What news is news?

Very big recent news headlines:

Satya Sai Baba has passed away.

Prince William is getting married.

Winds of change are blowing strongly in West Bengal, as will soon be apparent to one and all when the Assembly election results come out.

Alas, all three leave me unmoved.

Is it because I have grown old and cynical, or is it that there is something lacking in my mental makeup that I simply cannot get excited when millions of others do?

If pressed, I would say that to me, the first item was of the greatest significance. Not because I liked the Sai Baba’s looks, his love of wealth and pomp, his taste in clothes or interior décor, his (or rather, his followers’) claims that he was God incarnate, or his penchant for magic shows.

I had a certain degree of respect for him because of the immense amount of good works that he had done in one lifetime: from bringing water to some of the most drought-prone areas of the south to setting up schools and colleges where a lot of young people got fairly good-quality education to his several A-grade hospitals where hundreds of thousands have got medical treatment for almost free. I have also seen the educational booklets that they use at his Bal Vikaas Kendras (a type of playschool, of which there are hundreds around the country), and found them eminently sane and relevant to a good upbringing of children: they teach very practical things about resource conservation and environmental protection, about good manners and social responsibility, and about relying on one’s own spiritual strength to tackle all the hurdles and challenges of life. Whether or not such ideas are spread with a religious backing, heaven knows that this country desperately needs to spread that kind of education among its young.

To all those who turn up their noses because he was regarded as a godman, I can only say ‘do more than he did for social welfare, then start criticizing him’. I know, too, about many kinds of unsavoury rumours and canards that go around about him – and all I can say is, with a millionth of his fame, I have suffered lifelong from the same insane rumour-mongering industry, so I know how much they are worth. Finally, for all those who consider themselves too ‘smart and scientific’ to revere godmen, all I’ll say is that they are calling all sorts of people from Mukesh Ambani to APJ Abdul Kalam, from Sachin Tendulkar to Manmohan Singh and literally millions of ordinary devotees (who include all sorts of highly educated professionals) superstitious fools. I prefer to be humble, and adopt an agnostic position, choosing to judge a man by his words and deeds. I have no idea whether Vivekananda saw God (I don’t even know what that means, after reading both science and religion all my life), but I respect him profoundly for the life he lived.

And I certainly believe that Vivekananda living or Sai baba dying matters considerably more than Prince William getting married, or what the election results in West Bengal may say (about this last, see my comment on Tanmoy's blogpost).

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Kids at a loose end

There’s a girl I met on the street yesterday, a 16-year old who’s recently become an ex-pupil. She finished writing her secondary board examinations three weeks ago, and she was complaining that she was bored, having just about nothing to do at home. It threw my mind back to more than three decades ago, when I was exactly in her position.

I was luckier than most in a way. Exams ended in end-February: I went off gallivanting with some friends on that very day to nearby Shantiniketan (travelling without adult escort was still a great thrill in those days) to enjoy Holi as only footloose and fancy-free boys can do. Then back to Durgapur, to get thoroughly bored as that girl is being bored now for two whole months – though I read enormously, and often went to the movies, and cycled all around town alone and with friends, had sleepovers with one or two them, went swimming, and mooned over a budding romance. In May I had a lucky break again, and went holidaying with a friend’s extended family all around Himachal Pradesh for close to three weeks. We travelled on a shoestring budget, yet the memories still glow in my mind: it was one of the best holiday trips I have ever made. I came back to collect the examination results, and then it was permanently off to Calcutta. There I promptly got involved in a lot of things, from typewriting class to French lessons to giving tuition and writing for magazines and helping with my dad’s little business, and then I gradually began to study for the higher secondary course and prepare for admission. By mid-August I was well into a new and very hectic academic schedule once more, with hardly time to breathe, leave alone feel bored.

The girl’s complaint brought home to me the fact that very little has changed for the better in this one-horse town in thirty-odd years. Oh, there’s a multiplex cinema now (while most of the old cinemas have shut down or gone to seed), and you can easily watch movies at home, but on the flip side, there are no libraries any more. Nor museums, art galleries, zoos or parks worth the name. Shopping malls are becoming common, but no thinking person who is not a rich shopaholic can go to malls every day. As my daughter avers, it’s hard to keep watching TV all day for weeks and months on end, unless you are born with a vegetable brain, which doesn’t need much stimulation anyway. There are few clubs where parents can send their young to enjoy themselves in safe and healthy ways, such as by learning to dance, paint, sing, act, tell stories, cook or pick up some martial art: those that there are have been too strongly affected by a rather sick competitive spirit. One of the few bodily pleasures that I still enjoy is swimming, and I have to drive halfway across the town to do it: besides, it’s rather too expensive for most people. There are few interesting places nearby that you can drive to for a day’s outing. No wonder that most kids strain at the leash to start attending tuitions once again: that’s the only thing that is available aplenty, and the only place most parents are glad to send them, and where they can breathe a little and chatter a little and while away the time…

So why did I myself come back after eight very busy years in a metro? Well, partly it was because I was fed to the gills with the noise, crush, squalor and the peculiarly poignant kind of loneliness that grips a certain kind of person in a great city (see Albert Camus, The Outsider); partly it happened by accident (too long and convoluted to interest my readers, I’m sure). But it is true that it offered a more relaxed, less expensive, clean and quiet lifestyle, and I quickly got addicted to it. It gave me a decent living, and it helped that I became heavily enough engaged not to have time for boredom and loneliness. And now I am so used to it, 24 years later, that I can hardly imagine moving to someplace else, unless it were to some cleaner, quieter, nicer place still.

But the girl’s problem remains unsolved. What does a lively teenager do in this town when she has time on her hands?

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

A most frightening prospect

A lot of people have been asking me to comment on what Anna Hazare and his supporters have recently and spectacularly achieved with their agitation in New Delhi.

This blog writer (and those whom he has quoted, along with those who have commented on his blogpost) has done a great deal of work for me, so I needn’t write a lot of things that I’d have otherwise had to. To all of them my thanks. My readers should look up the contents of that link thoroughly before proceeding to read the following lines.

Well, now that you have read the above (if you want a professional lawyer's take, here it is), all I want to say is:

1.      I have profound respect for Anna Hazare and all he stands for (today the media have made him a national celebrity: I have talked about him to thousands of pupils for years when their parents had never heard of him), and as a thinking man and an Indian I am deeply grateful for much that he has fought for and won for all of us. India certainly needs lots of people like him.
2.      Having said that, I agree with Dr. B. R. Ambedkar that trying to coerce governments by going on fasts unto death Gandhi-style is a very very dangerous strategy (Nirad Chaudhuri once famously said that Gandhi was a worse dictator than Hitler!), to be used rarely and with extreme caution, and I am not at all sure that Hazare-ji did the right thing this time round.
3.      While any reader who follows this blog regularly will know how serious I am about this corruption issue, and though I do not want to sound cynical just for the heck of it, this ‘movement’, such as it was, makes the corners of my lips involuntarily curl up with suspicion and disdain. Who are these members of ‘civil society’ who have so suddenly woken up to the crying need to do away with corruption in public life? Someone who watched the whole shenanigan from almost next door as long as it lasted averred that a huge number were exactly the kind for whom any tamasha will do when something like World-Cup cricket is not available – they would run at the first hint of serious trouble, or as soon as they heard that a new shopping mall was being inaugurated nearby by Katrina Kaif. Of the rest, a significant number simply wanted to be seen on TV, wannabe celebrities all, a most pathetic class indeed; no one who respects the Masterda-Bhagat Singh type of patriots can spare a kind thought for them. Another group came riding in chauffered limousines – the five-star chatterati class – to show their solidarity with the aam admi’s concerns. Now chances are 99 to 1 that their wealth has not been gotten by means that would bear scrutiny by any anti-corruption body worth its salt, so no matter whether they are big-time contractors or ex-civil servants or yogi-babas or film stars, aren’t they taking a very silly risk, living in glass houses and still throwing stones? Would they enjoy the fun if and when such a high-powered vigilante body really came into being and started looking closely into their means and affairs?
4.      I shall go on repeating ad nauseam that this kind of corruption that has supposedly angered so many people is bound to become systemic and incurable in a country where most people are lazy and therefore want shortcuts to ‘success’ ever since childhood, and most have no means of making big money by honest means (think of a typical government clerk, a private sector engineer, a petty shopkeeper, a schoolteacher or a police constable), yet everybody has started worshipping money, slavering over it all the time, and using it as the only real criterion of ‘success’. Admit it to yourself; almost all of us are like that now, and those who aren’t we call stupid or crazy! (How many Indians do you think would be ‘fans’ of SRK or Sachin if those two had not been making pots of money?) Gandhi knew this very well, which is why he insisted lifelong that there can be no honesty in public life unless public figures (cricketers as much as politicians, mind you) are committed to living simple, undemanding lives as models of self-control and probity. He himself practised what he preached, but remember he couldn’t persuade even the man who liked to call himself his closest disciple to follow in his footsteps. Anna-ji maybe has every right to call himself a Gandhian, but he should be very careful about all the people who are clambering on to his bandwagon: he has a hard-won reputation to lose!
5.      Most worrisome of all is that a small number of people – even a few tens of thousands is a minuscule number in a country of 1200+ million, remember – is aiming to set itself up as the supreme national arbiter of all things moral, a kind of absolute, unchallengeable supra-governmental authority over all the rest of us. Even if every one of those ‘revolutionaries’ were a saintly lover of mankind, I would be terrified at the prospect: if this does not strike at the very roots of representative government (which, as Churchill said, is the least bad of all forms of authority known to man), if this does not reek of fascism of the worst sort, I don’t know what does. I for one would much rather live with a lot of crime and corruption and confusion and dissent of even the violent sort than submit myself with glee to such a draconian dispensation: I see shades of the French Reign of Terror and the worst times after the Russian and Chinese revolutions in the very attempt to create such a monster in the name of cleansing public life. I do, do hope that a lot of sane Indians would see the danger before it is too late, and protest very loudly indeed. Oh that we were a race that knew and cared a little more about history!

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Filling in

I suppose I owe a word of apology to those of my readers (I know there are a few) who wait eagerly for the next installment of what has become virtually a once-a-week ritual: I’ve kept them waiting. These last few days have been admission season, and every year around this time my family has all its work cut out, handling floods of people and answering the phone from dawn to almost midnight, doing a lot of clerical work and waiting and saying the same things over and over again. There are also some minor irritations every time. You must remember that all this happens in the midst of existing classes running round the week as per usual schedule. The result is not only exhaustion but frayed nerves and minds perforce emptied of all other kinds of thought. Hence no blogposts for a while.

One good thing this time is that the weather has been unusually balmy, thanks to several early nor’westers since mid-March. It still doesn’t feel as though summer is here, and the trees all around are lush green, and the cuckoos are going full blast right since the wee hours of the morning. It is good not to have to cope with sweltering heat on top of everything else.

This is not only my silver-jubilee batch with class nine-rs, but it so happens that it’s my daughter’s batch too. I can’t believe she has grown up so much. I hope all my well-wishers wish me luck. Growing old has its compensations: over these last few years the number of pupils who are children of my own childhood friends has been increasing.

Meanwhile I also note with pleasure that the number of people who have kindly enlisted as followers is about to approach the 200 mark. That will be a small milestone, and I request the 200th person who enlists to let me know who he or she is; it will be a pleasure to say ‘welcome’. The fact that the number of visits has been climbing slowly but relentlessly is another very nice thing indeed. It is not easy to write continuously and keep people interested in this day and age (without resorting to sleaze, sensation or some sort of commercial solicitation) for almost five years at a stretch. The overwhelming majority of bloggers I know – especially among Indians – run out of steam after the first half dozen posts, and the visit count never goes beyond four figures. I also happen to know that there have been a number of new visitors of late who have been exploring this blog eagerly: them I request to visit and comment on older blogposts, instead of restricting themselves to only what they find on the home page. That is something I find especially delightful, and I daresay my new readers will find quite a lot of stuff to interest them, too.

Finally (for now) I note wryly that very few people have found anything to say with regard to my last two blogposts. I flatter myself that I have made a lot of readers uncomfortable, and left them at a loss for words…