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Thursday, November 24, 2011

What does it mean to be intelligent?

An old boy recently wrote me a one-line email: ‘Sir, what does it mean to be intelligent?’ The best of my old boys are like that: they suddenly pop up with questions, not only because they are really keen to have an answer, but probably because they know I like people who make me think.

This is what I wrote back: “Ha! You could look up H.J. Eysenck’s books (such as Check your own IQ) for starters, I suppose. Then consider that many experts opine that there are different kinds of intelligence: someone who is great at chess could be hopeless in business, a physicist a dud in politics. Personally, I judge my pupils’ intelligence by how many times they have to be told the same things, how long they remember things they are told, how quickly they pick up hints and see connections between different things, how creative their imaginations are, how curious they are to know things ‘not in their syllabus’... things like that. As you well know, I don't call many people intelligent, and I see remarkably few really intelligent people among those who routinely ace their examinations.” I could have added that an intelligent pupil usually has a lot of questions to ask, and likes to argue every point – so intelligence can flourish only with encouragement from liberal minded, enthusiastic and intelligent teachers (parents importantly among them), especially in the early years!

I deliberately kept that reply short, but I do have a few things to add. First, that intelligence is a very interesting thing – most of civilization we owe to it. What is even more noteworthy about it is that all through history, hardly 10 per cent, or perhaps even less, of the human population could have ever been called intelligent by any yardstick (and I don’t care how ‘elitist’ this sounds – the same applies to other things, like for instance ‘beautiful’. These are facts: if you don’t like the way they are, quarrel with the Maker, don’t call your fellow men names out of frustration and spite!). Also, don’t ascribe worldly success to intelligence: statistically speaking, luck (including which parents you were born to), daring, diligence and ruthlessness, combined sometimes with some native skill which has found a lucrative market, like playing cricket in contemporary India, together play a far bigger role in your success than any intelligence you may possess – indeed, an excess of intelligence might be a serious liability in all sorts of worldly careers which require getting along with the herd and not noticing or bothering overmuch about all that is wrong and weird and stupid around you.

Intelligence sometimes makes you conceited, and helps to make enemies, so it is a good thing to temper it with modesty and quietness. However, whether or not an intelligent person is stuck up, it makes others jealous and spiteful, so it behoves the intelligent person to be careful unless s/he wants to be nailed to the cross, and reconcile to the fact that s/he will be lonely all through life, unless s/he is exceptionally lucky to have a few admiring friends. We hate clever people much more than any other type.

A lifetime of reading, observing and teaching at all levels has convinced me that academic merit has very little to do with intelligence, whether you are looking at the kindergarten level or at post-doc scholars. Learning, yes, sometimes, but not intelligence. Also, children are usually much smarter than adults are, and in that sense that chestnut which says ‘I was born intelligent, but education ruined me’ hits the nail absolutely on the head, especially given the kind of ‘education’ that has been drummed into people’s heads over the last two generations in this country and some others I could name. Which, of course, does not mean that any pinhead teenager who goes around with that legend on her t-shirt has a right to imagine that she should be identified as intelligent, mind you.

Some people of superlative intelligence are very narrowly focused, but I give highest marks to those who have a very wide diversity of interests and talents – the Leonardo and Tagore and Asimov types.

Emotional intelligence is not the same as being able to do complex math quickly in  the head: it means being able to imaginatively understand and sympathize with other people’s plight and points of view, and even think up solutions for their problems (which are not usually of a ‘convergent’ nature, meaning the sort they ask you to tackle in most tests for entrance to engineering or business school) even if you have not personally shared in their experiences. In this sense, many an old-fashioned grandma is far more intelligent than her grandson who has just graduated from a top-flight technical college. Technical/mechanical intelligence – the sort that makes successful inventors, scrabble players and entrepreneurs – I believe, is not only far more common than that of the emotional type, but is getting  dangerously  too common in a world which maniacally undervalues the other type both in academia and in the job market. You cannot expect decent people, leave alone saints, to flourish in a world where plumbers (or software writers, or mannequins) are far more highly rewarded, and not just in terms of money. For instance, so many people whom I once knew cannot understand why I should forget them or become cool and aloof when they try to renew contact after a hiatus of many years… that’s the sort of lack of intelligence I am talking about, and all these people are more or less educated, even bright if you go by their examination scores.

In close connection with emotional intelligence comes the question of wit. And I must insist on this: although wit can be taken too far, a keen appreciation of humour is one very important sign of the kind of intelligence I value most – perhaps because it is so rare around me. Intelligent people, unless they are depressive, laugh a lot, make people laugh, don’t take themselves too seriously, and limit their aggression to verbal barbs (never, of course, stooping to abuse, which is anything but witty).

Intelligence (and talent) can flourish only in a milieu where they are actively identified and patronized. It is no wonder that certain brief periods in the history of many countries have been emblazoned with the apparently ‘sudden’ appearance of a great many men and women of the highest intelligence. India today would rank pretty low in terms of how she values the kind of people who make good writers, lawmakers, teachers, judges and saints. Next to being a highly intelligent man, it is best to be a man who respects and values intelligence, especially if you are in a position of some power, whether as a school headmaster or a tycoon or a cabinet minister. Best for the country, I mean.

Paradoxically, exceptionally intelligent men are often far more sympathetic to the slow and foolish than people of quite average intelligence are: read Maugham’s short story Salvatore, and Tagore’s Balai.

Finally, I must bear witness to the impression that the more this country drowns in solemn and self-important mediocrity, the less it wants to see intelligent people flourish.

Here is also a link to something that some of my readers might find interesting for further reading.

Have I done justice to your question now, Amit, in case you are reading? Any other question on the subject that I can try to answer, readers?

Thursday, November 17, 2011


I have always held that Bibhuti Bhushan Bandyopadhyay would have won the Nobel Prize for literature if he had had the good fortune to be born English or French or Spanish or even Russian: it was his misfortune that he was born a Bengali. Outside a very tiny circle of readers, his fame rests overwhelmingly on only one book, the Apu Trilogy beginning with Pather Panchali, immortalized in cinema by Satyajit Ray. He deserved much better. Aranyak, The Tale of the Forest, is certainly – to my knowledge, at least – one of a kind as a novel, and I hold it as one of the hundred greatest books I have ever read. His adventure saga for children of all ages, Chander Pahaar, The Mountain of the Moon, is likewise a gem of the finest cut: it still takes my breath away to think that any author could write so knowledgeably and evocatively about faraway places he had only read (and dreamt-) about. In Bengali, only Premendra Mitra’s Surjyo Kaandle Shona in the same genre can be placed on the same pedestal, and no Bengali writer, even with the internet at his disposal, has come close to equaling the feat in the last 20 years. So also Adorsho Hindu Hotel, which I encouraged my daughter to write about on her blog some time ago, and Ichhamati, and Ashani Sanket.

Now I have just finished reading and digesting Debjaan, another little novel of his, and I am filled with a sublime wonder. I had read it when I was a boy, but then, somehow, it didn’t make a very great impression: evidently I had to grow up a great deal before I could appreciate its true worth!

It is an adventure story spanning many worlds and many lifetimes. In one sense, it is cast in the mould of Lord of the Rings and Asimov’s Foundation series; at least, those who have read and loved those books would relish it most. What makes it unique is that it is unabashedly spiritual in tone and message, not merely carrying religious overtones like Lewis’ Narnia saga. Drawing from many Indian theological traditions, including the bhakti of the vaishnav and the advaita of the gnyana yogi (and blending them magnificently with many of the findings and speculations of 20th century science, such as distant galaxies beyond human vision and  supernovae and baby stars being born out of interstellar gas, and the possibility of intelligent life – though perhaps of a sort very different from the terrestrial – flourishing on many other planets, and that ‘reality’ could exist in many dimensions beyond those perceived by the human senses), it describes the soul’s journey through many worlds, many heavens, seeing the human drama unfolding with supra-human eyes, being reborn again and again, wading through all kinds of sin and depravity and yet struggling forever towards the light, pulled ever upwards by the all-conquering power of love, meeting incomprehensibly higher beings (gods/angels if you like), some of whom were human once – and all along trying, with ever greater understanding and still falling hopelessly short, to realize the Ultimate, the Absolute, both the alpha and the omega, from whom all things physical and mental arise and into whom they go back again, whom some call God, knowing whom is the only way to gain true freedom and joy and glory.

The Upanishad has been quoted here: adityavaranam purushang mahantam/ vedahametang tamaso parastat/ twameva viditwati mrityumeti/ nanya pantha vidyathe ayanayah (it is only by directly knowing the effulgent Being who stands beyond the darkness and the void that you can overcome Death: there is no other way). But I was also reminded of the medieval brajabuli poet Vidyapati writing in praise of the Supreme Lord of All: kata chaturanana mari mari jawata, na tuwa adi avasana/ tohe janami punah tohe samawata, saagar lahari samana (so many Creator Brahmas have been born from You who is without beginning and end, and died again, like waves on an infinite ocean…), and I remembered Emily Dickinson writing This world is not conclusion, a Species stands beyond/ Invisible as music, but positive, as sound/ ...To guess it puzzles scholars, to gain it men have borne/ Contempt of generations, and crucifixion, shown/ Faith slips, and laughs, and rallies/ Blushes, if any see/ Plucks at a twig of evidence, and asks a vane the way…

The book, I felt, and my daughter independently concurred, fills one with an ineffable sense of peace and confidence and cheerfulness. Once I allow the full possibility of the vastness of reality to pervade my mind, much ennui fades, much that I take seriously becomes trivial, and much terror begins to look silly. I wonder whether Professor Dumbledore had read the Gita, but he got it absolutely right at least twice: ‘Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?’ and ‘To the well-organized mind, death is but the next great adventure.’ Ekam satya, the truth is one, though maybe vipra bahudha vidanti, the wise sometimes call it by different names.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Idealistic horrors

Ideals? Yes, it is important to have some ideals, especially in a world which is rapidly becoming gross, totally obsessed with the here and now, convinced that just about everything goes, and mindlessly materialistic, nowhere better illustrated than by the way caring for skin, hair, teeth and nails has become a multi-billion dollar industry, promising to keep you eternally young and appealing, utterly at odds with the ineluctable fact that no matter how much we try and spend, we are all going to grow old and fusty, and then die and be forgotten all too soon, all of us except the blessed few who leave valuable things behind, and not even they for very long… It is important to love living things rather than gadgets, it is important to dream (and not just about making money!), it is important to hold on to certain non-negotiable values simply because one is convinced that they are good in themselves, it is important to believe that there’s more to life than bestial, sensual existence, even if that is a five-star existence… that’s the sort of thing I mean. And so (see my post titled 'Skepticism and cynicism') I celebrate when I see young people who do have some ideals, and I take my hat off to elderly people who still retain a few.

I am, however, congenitally the kind of person who is wary of wild enthusiasms of any sort, especially idealistic ones. It is possible to be too idealistic. One can simply be bone-lazy all one’s life and pass it off as an effect of idealism – I have personally known far too many people of the sort. They do no good to themselves and remain burdens on their families and friends lifelong, myriad forever-just-about-to-become-great artists and philosophers among them. The type is not unique to any particular age or race, but I am ashamed that there’s a preponderance of such folks among my own people, the Bengalis. Then there are people who are truly idealistic, loving, caring, deeply spiritual, but such a one too can be a cross for others to bear. The great medieval Marathi saint Tukaram wrote a song in a moment of total candour that while he spent all his time praising the Lord, the cow ate up the vegetables from his stall, while his wife wept and cursed him for not feeding his own children. In today’s world the type has grown pretty uncommon, but not extinct.

What led me to write this essay, however,  was this article about how the very great romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley was not, in real personal life, halfway as wonderful a man as he comes across through his poetry. One shudders to think of the dichotomy, really, and thanks heaven that he never got a chance to ‘remould the world nearer to heart’s desire’, in Omar Khayyam’s words. It is this type who, when they do get a chance to wield power over men’s bodies and minds, become Robespierres and Lenins: and millions rue the day they stopped writing poetry and started making and executing laws. No wonder Shelley’s long-suffering wife fiercely wanted her son to become just a normal, ordinary man!

As my dear old boy Abhirup says, quoting a line from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, I only seem to have a ‘choice of nightmares’. What would I rather have: a world with more Shelleys in it, or one filled with dumb and crass teenagers (of all ages… see my post titled 'Juvenilia') living it up at the pubs and shopping malls as if there need be no tomorrow?

[P.S.: The results of the poll have been fixtured at the bottom of the right hand sidebar]

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Post poll stock-taking

Well, I am writing with mixed feelings. 140-odd people apparently read my blog regularly and like it; as many as 85 have even done me the courtesy of calling the blog ‘educational’: that is most gratifying as far as it goes.

At the same time, I wonder a) why the number of members is so low still, given that so many people know me and so many people visit – what makes people so shy of publicly acknowledging that they visit a certain blog? It’s neither a crime nor a socially dangerous activity! b) why so many of the current members (there are more than 200 right now) didn’t vote at all, though I gave them almost forty days, c) why there are as a rule so few comments (I am comparing with some blog writers I know – not even celebrities either – whose every post attracts scores, even hundreds of comments), d) why certain posts that I write with great earnestness, whether it be a story or the essay I wrote just before this one, draw almost no comments at all, despite being visited hundreds of times, e) why I cannot attract more visitors to my other blog, and lastly, f) why some people visited my daughter’s blog eagerly when I announced its birth, but have since decided not to visit it again, or even if they do, never to comment on it. It would have been such good encouragement to a girl who is doing something better than what most girls of her age and social class do, which is nothing much beyond wasting their time and their parents’ money…

When there is no material expectation involved, one writes purely for the pleasure of sharing one’s most sincere and evocative thoughts with some friendly people. I write because I cannot help it: I have been writing all sorts of stuff ever since I was a little boy. But I wrote for a reading public only for a relatively short while, when I was into journalism. Since quitting that, writing has always been a private hobby, to be shared, if at all, only with a few interested pupils, family and friends. I got back into the public domain with blogging only because some old boys had urged me to make a beginning, saying that it would be a very nice way to communicate with a lot of people scattered around the world who want to keep in touch but cannot think of any other way – physical visits are rare or impossible, while conversations over the phone, necessarily brief and often abrupt and unexpected, are quite unsatisfactory. I did think it was a good idea (look up my second post) and took the plunge. I never do things half-heartedly, so – as should be evident – I have been at it assiduously all these years, writing not too much, but not too little either. And now I am beginning to wonder. Especially when I think of the paucity of comments, and when ex-students call or chat online and I get to know from them that they haven’t visited my blogs for ages. Is it time to give this up as a bad job, from which nothing much more can be expected? 

Give me a little encouragement, people, to show that my initial hopes were not wholly unfounded. If, that is, you really want this blog to stay alive. Otherwise, it will probably go the way of my orkut community, which is to say oblivion.