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Friday, August 26, 2011


An elderly gentleman came to seek counsel yesterday about his grown-up son (who had been my pupil once) who is pushing thirty, with a pregnant wife, still sitting at home virtually doing nothing and feeding off his father, having given up four jobs in a row within five years because they were ‘ill-paid, boring and humiliating’. By an odd coincidence, I was reading the cartoon strip titled Luann in my newspaper yesterday, and there I read about an elderly American couple worrying about exactly the same thing: a son who in an earlier age would have been fending for himself for at least a decade already sitting at home, living off his parents still, and playing idiotic video games online where he regularly ‘saves the world’ as some sort of ‘superhero’.

I was musing along with some of my readers in earlier posts on both my blogs about the tendency towards homogenization all over the world, and too many features of this process are alarmingly similar, such as this one. First, parents bring up pampered brats, waiting upon them hand and foot, not teaching them basic responsibilities and manners, indulging their every whim to the limit of (and sometimes beyond) the parents’ ability, telling them that all they need to do is to get ‘good marks’ in school and college and then a ‘bright future’ is waiting for them… and then the same parents discover to their chagrin that either their children have become ‘successful’ in nothing more than the pettiest middle-class sense (doing nondescript jobs for modest salaries just like millions of other nonentities, all dreams of becoming rich and famous quietly buried, slowly burning up with disillusionment and frustration), or worse, they are useless parasites with bloated egos, who won’t go out to work unless they can start off as CEOs or superstars of this or that variety, much preferring to let their parents keep on maintaining them and their families in turn, as long as they can. And many of these parents are actually too scared to take them by the scruff of the neck and throw them out on the streets, either because they ‘love’ their children too much still ('Suppose he commits suicide?'), or they are worried sick about what people might say, or afraid that their children may actually turn upon them …news reports are becoming increasingly common about desperate old parents going to the police and courts to seek ‘protection’ or ‘support’ from their adult offspring. What monsters we have created in vast numbers by trying to be cleverer than our parents were!

I don’t care what my daughter does after she’s 24-25, so long as it’s not something shameful or criminal, but she has known since she was 10 that laziness and greed will never be indulged, and she must be able to stand on her own two feet. If she cares to look after her parents in our old age, that will be a huge bonus, of course. But she must get off our backs at least. And try to do something that is personally satisfying if not also socially useful, whether or not that makes her rich. Having her back at home with us now and then must be an unadulterated pleasure, never an obligation or burden. If things work out that way, I shall consider myself both very successful and very fortunate indeed…

Friday, August 19, 2011

Oh Albion, beware India...

I shall carry on with the thread of what I was musing over in the last blogpost, especially with reference to the two articles whose links have been provided in the comments, one by Swapan Dasgupta and the other by Ian Jack. Those who dislike any kind of serious discourse, please stay away.

Arnold J. Toynbee is generally associated with the theory that nations (he would have preferred civilisations) experience epochs of rise and fall, and that the interplay of challenge and (corresponding-) response decides what sort of historical track a nation will follow, and for how long. Also, the greatness of a nation is certainly pivoted, in the first instance, on how rich and militarily powerful it manages to become, but mere wealth and power have never completely defined greatness: that depended upon how strongly one nation could influence, even impress others, fill them with admiration, respect, and a strong desire to emulate. I don’t think historically conscious people will doubt that England’s rise to greatness started with the Tudors coming to power in the mid-16th century (everything started then or soon after, from global explorations of discovery to defeating the Spanish Armada, the founding of the East India Company to the kind of social ambience that could produce and lionize geniuses on the scale of Shakespeare, Milton and Newton, the huge political upheavals that firmly secured the foundations of the most enduring of democratic societies…), and reached its apogee in the last days of Queen Victoria, in the final decades of the 19th century, not merely because Britain had by then become the first as well as biggest industrial economy in the world or that it ruled the largest empire ever, but because she had self-consciously and proudly achieved an incredible number of things which she taught or dared other countries to follow: from creating the infrastructure for universal education and social security and the most organized and efficient police service in the world to kindness to animals to missionary activity on an unprecedented scale, from mapping the planet to creating the greatest body of literature the world has ever known, from setting up the first ever society geared to science and technology to delineating a culture of suavity, understated decency and humour and good manners that spared none, from the monarch down to the ragpicker, and creating a more widely diffused will to greatness than has ever been seen before or after…

Then  came the two world wars, with the Great Depression thrown in in between. Britain emerged nominally vindicated and victorious, but something precious and essential had been lost – although they didn’t know it then, back in the 1940s. There followed Keynesianism and the welfare state and the post war construction boom, James Bond and the Beatles and drugs, ‘progressive’ ideas about education and the Commonwealth and the British Council, prime ministers assuring the nation that they had ‘never had it so good’, the invasion by mass-consumerist American culture and hordes of immigrants, and the country rode an artificial high for a long, long time: in fact, even in the 1980s, there were intellectuals pointing out how Britain should rejoice that she was much ‘richer’ in the post-colonial era. There were grumbling voices growing ever louder that they had made a country of lazy, irresponsible, uncivic buffoons by the million (witness the obesity epidemic, the degree of functional illiteracy and the culture of the football beer gangs), and it couldn’t afford it much longer. What followed was the long night of Thatcherism, during which much of the best of the welfare state was demolished, and over the ruins was raised once more the ramparts of capitalism of the most rapacious, shameless, ostentatious variety … success means the rich getting richer quick (Ronald Reagan might have actually learnt this from the Brits) and nothing else. Thirty years have passed since then, too, and now, as the very recent urban riots show, the chickens are coming home to roost. Note two things: the vandals stole no food and no books, only laptop computers, iPods, flatscreen TVs and Nike trainers, besides the odd water bottle, lifted just for the ‘fun’ of it. And now the incumbent PM is lamenting over a broken society: a culture of  ‘irresponsibility, selfishness, behaving as if your choices have no consequences, children without fathers, schools without discipline, reward without effort, crime without punishment, rights without responsibilities…’ This is obviously a very far cry from the England people like us knew, adored, even worshipped. But the question is, has it happened by sheer accident, or, as the Americans say, they had it coming? And the far more important question for us Indians – citizens of the greatest wannabe country in the world – is, can we see the writing on the wall, meant for us?

The increasing crassness and arrogance and boorishness of an increasingly rich class of upstarts, the epidemic of social dysfunction all around us, the persistence of great poverty amidst great opulence, the skyrocketing graphs of environmental pollution and natural-resource depletion, the rapid loss of not only the physical treasure of cultural heritage but awareness thereof (‘Who was this RaOne dude? Was he, like, cool…?’ and ‘Why go to Aurangabad, yaar? No malls there, just some dirty old caves with stupid pictures on the walls…’), the stench of corruption everywhere, the increasingly moron-friendly quality of examinations (an expression that a very wise British boy has just taught me) which allows millions to get the tag of ‘educated’ with no effort at all, the policy paralysis that has engulfed the highest levels of government, the total dishonesty that pervades every kind of relationship, from the one with your bank advisor to the one with your so-called love interest… how much more evidence do we need that mere anarchy is loos’d upon us, and the ‘blood-dimm’d tide’ might not be too far off?

Friday, August 12, 2011

Oh, Albion...

I have been avidly reading the news coverage of the orgy of rioting, looting and vandalism that has suddenly engulfed so many towns in England, including London, over the last week.

Why has it happened? The pundits, as is their wont, have come up with a mixed bag of explanations. Growing income inequalities resulting from recent government policies, exacerbated by increasingly onerous poverty among large numbers and consequent anger especially among the most ‘deprived’ and despairing youth which has now exploded: that was one favourite explanation – until today, when reports are saying that the arrested perpetrators, almost a thousand of them already, not only vary in age from 11(!) to the mid-forties, but include comfortable to well-off people (see this), prompting an ordinary Londoner to lament ‘We really have brought up a horrible generation of kids!’ Police ‘atrocities’ against members of a certain community in the recent past have been another favourite whipping boy. Things have been growing darker: it seems that in some places phalanxes of Asians are now gearing up for a long-drawn-out race war against Blacks. Paradoxically, one more explanation is overly lax policing: apparently it took the prime minister three whole days to decide to authorize the lawkeepers to use force (and that too, only guns with plastic-tipped bullets, while they still debate the appropriateness of water cannon to scatter armed mobs). One does not need to wonder what the government’s reaction would be if this had been happening either in New York/LA or New Delhi/Kolkata…

What has gone wrong with this highly cultured, rich, consciously multicultural society?

Is Britain confused, or unprepared, or just too civilized to handle big social turbulences of this sort?

And turning back to India, I believe the picture is both more confusing and more frightening. There are far more people crushed together here, far more poverty and inequality, a far more volatile multicultural mix, far less social responsibility and discipline, government that is far more inept and by turns excessively indulgent and excessively brutal. A very potent brew, and little fires keep erupting every now and then with monotonous regularity, of course: but can we handle a sudden conflagration? Or rather, from prime minister down to the man in the street, do we want even to think about it? (in this context, you might read this blogpost – along with the comments – that I think has acquired a new immediacy).

P.S., August 13: wikipedia's relevant article, updated today, says a certain poll claims a huge 71% of affected people feel that criminal behaviour, gang culture and poor policing have together been responsible for the riots. If this is not a big enough go-ahead for the government to crack down with conviction on the perpetrators, what else could be? Talk about pussyfooting... 

Friday, August 05, 2011

A choice of icons

I read this very weird editorial in my newspaper yesterday. It says – quite justifiably – it is a pity that while we are going gaga publicly celebrating the 150th birth anniversary of Rabindranath Tagore, we have chosen virtually to forget another great titan of yesteryear, Acharya Prafulla Chandra Roy, outstanding chemist, teacher extraordinary and pioneering Bengali entrepreneur. From which the editorial writer goes on to infer that it is clear Bengalis have chosen to put literature far above science, which itself ranks higher than entrepreneurship on their priority list, and that bodes great ill for Bengal. The editorial grimly ends on the warning note that Bengalis, having made their choice, ‘can continue to spout poetry amidst overwhelming squalor and demeaning poverty’.  

Correct me if I am wrong, but I found this an absolutely remarkable example of muddled thinking. Whenever did literatteurs as a tribe (leave alone Tagore) glorify squalor and poverty? Since when did being interested (or creative) in literature automatically indicate a contempt or apathy for science? Who says all Bengalis have forgotten P.C. Roy? He was never exactly a pop idol anyway, and the right sort of people certainly do remember him – on Tuesday, August 2nd, there was a lecture cum photo exhibition about him in one of the leading universities of the state. What should we have instead: yet one more meaningless public holiday or a jamboree IPL style? Which Bengali who knowledgeably adores Tagore has deliberately forgotten Roy? And where did the editorial writer meet Bengalis ‘spouting poetry’? I should have thought Bengali businessmen (I wouldn’t honour the majority of them with the tag of entrepreneur) were a far more common species these days! How does forgetting P.C. Roy prove that we are ‘devoted’ to Tagore? I have written about another truly brilliant Bengali, Rajshekhar Basu aka Parashuram on this blog earlier. He was equally at home with both science and literature: how many ‘cultured’ Bengalis remember him? Which country, now universally recognized as ‘advanced’, had to eschew literature and the arts in order to pursue science and entrepreneurship? 

As a teacher, I can testify from a  lifetime’s experience that Bengalis care as little for science as for literature or the arts, leave alone entrepreneurship. I can safely aver that in 98 out of every 100 Bengali families today, except perhaps the very rich and the very poor, parents are drilling it into the minds of their children that their only aim in life should be finding a reasonably safe, reasonably light, reasonably well-paid job which gives one some ‘social status’, meaning that they absolutely must cram a few dozen textbooks to become either salaried doctors or engineers (definitely not scientists, unless they fail the entrance tests at least once!), both Tagore and Roy be damned. The even sadder truth is that most of the children, even if bored to tears with their academic rat race, are quite convinced that their parents are right, have only their ‘welfare’ at heart. As I frequently tell my own pupils, in another twenty years’ time we shall not have competent teachers or judges or plumbers or carpenters at all, leave alone scientists and artists and writers: we must make do as well as we can with a whole country full of just doctors and engineers (besides plain crooks and salesmen of countless hues, including journalists and ad-copywriters). This is the ground reality: how does it pay to fool ourselves otherwise? With even the media spouting this kind of nonsense, hasn’t it become truly a case of the blind leading the blind?