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Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Troublesome freedom

I do not always write for children here (and there are a lot of 50-year old children around these days, I know), so here’s some serious stuff again.

This article in The American Scholar has set me musing over one of my pet themes once more: where does one (and a society) draw the line between freedom and responsibility (I strongly recommend that this earlier post be read in tandem with the current one)? Is it possible to have too much freedom? Do we perhaps make a fetish of freedom as with everything else, from God to science? Can a society go to the dogs with freedom just as it can asphyxiate or explode under tyranny?

Karl Marx once famously said ‘The philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.’ Had that savant lived to see all that has happened since his day, all the change that freedom-intoxicated humanity, commoners by the millions as much as technologists and businessmen and politicians and pop-philosophers and ad-men have together done to change the world, he might have found himself breathless and very confused, if not also dismayed and disgusted (in personal life, as far as I know, he was a much more quiet and conservative man than I am). What would he have said when Revlon and Twitter alike can bring about instant and virtually painless ‘revolutions’, when the Higgs boson and Lady Gaga are equally ‘hot’ and ‘cool’ in the mass media for the passing moment, when nothing is sacred any more except what cults and loony fringes subscribe to, when schoolboys either hang themselves or shoot their teachers on failing examinations, and when change for change’s sake has become a hypnotizing mantra whose spell enthralls virtually everybody? Wouldn’t he have started looking desperately for people who still want to ‘stand and stare’, to make sense of the whirligig of life, and to make judgments they can live by, judgments they don’t have to change from one day to another to fit the fad of the moment?

Are we really free – whether we are children or adults, male or female, rich or poor – or simply tied to some eternally turning machine like cogs in the wheel: either studying for examinations, or making a living, or attending to social ‘obligations’, or shopping or watching TV simply because we can’t think of anything better to do? Do we really want very much freedom, or will most people’s lives fall apart if ever the ropes of routine and discipline were loosened a bit? Is it perhaps the primary duty of the ruling classes – among whom I include not just politicians and policemen but teachers, religious men and celebrities, too – to provide a little more discipline, more structure, more orderliness in our lives, and are they failing in their duty (which would explain everything from soaring graphs of divorce and death in road accidents to sudden economic crashes through unregulated and rampant greed at the bourses)? Are we being taught enough, at all levels from kindergarten to the university, about how best to use our freedom(s)? And, as the linked article very pertinently asks, are we forgetting that there are other, very important ideals to aim at, by being obsessed with freedom – even trivial freedom, like wearing abusive comments on t-shirts?

What is the point in thinking about such things, many readers may wonder. I am very clear about why I do it. It is the only thing that keeps the essential humanity in oneself alive: otherwise we are just living the lives of (sometimes glorified, but mindless) drudges. Cogito, ergo sum. Besides, all real change for the better comes from thinking in this fashion, and spreading the thoughts around. I am a cerebral man, and naturally all my heroes were cerebral over and above everything else. One of them said ‘The ideas of economists and political philosophers… are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed, the world is ruled by little else… sooner or later, it is ideas rather than vested interests that are dangerous for good or evil.’ And John Maynard Keynes did change the world in a very significant (I’d say on the whole better-) way with his ideas about how governments should regulate capitalism in the larger public interest…

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Taking stock, post the 100,000 milestone

Well, first of all, the visit count has officially crossed the 100,000 mark now (actually it did so a couple of months ago), and these days I routinely get more than 2000 visits a month, so now I can consider myself a serious blogger. Thanks to all who made it possible (even my detractors, because after all their visits too were counted!), and more so to all from whom congratulations have been pouring in.

Next, about the last post. It has now been visited almost 1000 times. So I guess a lot of people have now come to know what I feel about the whole subject, and the word will get around, especially to those whom I most want to know. Thanks again, to all who wrote encouraging and congratulatory comments. Consider, though, that 1000 visits have drawn only about 25 comments: and people get so angry when I publicly remark that most people who chatter all the time actually never have anything substantial to say on any substantive issue! Very interestingly, there has been not one foolish and rude and irrelevant comment yet, though I have been checking the trash bin daily.

A few acknowledgments are due. As several have pointed out with sympathetic understanding, it took a great deal of guts to make the decision (best proved by the fact that many of my frustrated ex-colleagues have fumed before their pupils that they too were of a mind to leave, but not one has done so in all these years!), and, what is more, it takes as much to carry on, year after year. Belonging to the Bengali middle class as I (alas!) do, I realize only too well the desperation to just somehow get a job – any job, however ill-paid and demeaning – as the one and only purpose of ‘education’, and how utterly unthinkable most salaried Bengalis find it even to consider quitting something easy and comfortable and secure: nothing has changed since the days when Bankimchandra and Vidyasagar, Tagore, Vivekananda and P. C. Roy poured scorn over this disgusting, spineless tribe; only their greed and vanity and prickly egos have swelled manifold. I reserve my sharpest invectives for people who, protected by company health insurance and life insurance and provident fund and gratuity schemes and leave travel allowances and cheap loans for buying houses and cars and schooling for their young, often having nearly 100 days of holidays a year, envy us self-employed people for making the money we do, and even grumble that we do not pay ‘enough’ taxes! And my greatest respect is reserved for those who stand on their own feet and make their own living, whether they are humble dhaaba owners or top flight surgeons and lawyers and tutors with private practices, and, it goes without saying, writers and musicians and those who try to make a living by making good movies…

At the same time – and I do hope my favourite readers will understand and admit it to themselves – there is also the reverse of the coin to be always kept in mind: there is the constant danger of being swept off one’s feet by the lure of easy money, especially when so many people are so keen to shove it into your hands, just so long as you say yes and take their child in. I have seen so many doctors and teachers first make a name for themselves and then turn into mere money-making machines, completely unconcerned about the deterioraring quality of their services… my greatest pride is when a current pupil meets with someone who studied with me ten or fifteen years ago, and compares notes, and they both discover that I still give unstintedly of myself in class as I did so many years ago, and because I can’t do it with too many at a time, so many people go away disappointed, even offended, utterly incapable of understanding why I said no. Believe me it’s hard, having to make myself disagreeable by refusing money, especially since I am not really rich in the sense of not having to work at all. And so I still fantasize about winning a lottery, and pray that God may sustain me in active mode a little longer. Nishant, that is the only sense in which I expect ‘results’ from my actions! Does that make sense?

Sreejith, that was a touching recollection. Makes me proud in retrospect, thinking that amidst that kind of stress I could bear up so well, calmly and with dignity, for that is the quality of character that I most admire, and find least often around me. Debarshi, frankly, I didn’t notice the coincidence about the date, but it’s intriguing, yes. Dipanwita and Arani, thanks for the kind words, but I mourn for the school, imagining the kind of people who will be celebrating its golden jubilee next year. Sayan and Rashmi, I hope you will always keep in mind that a true teacher must uphold high ideals, and practise what he preaches. It is that, rather than lack of capital or technology or organization or anything of that sort which is holding India back from realizing her full potential, and this has to be preached by millions of teachers at the grassroots, not the likes of APJ Abdul Kalam pontificating from the luxurious and exalted confines of Rashtrapati Bhavan!

Anand, my deepest regards to your aged relative: she had it exactly right. Don’t lose faith in yourself, and don’t forget God. Only, we ‘smarter’ young people think we have better ideas to live by, and some of us must take it upon ourselves to prove that the old way was the right way after all.

Sayantika, I wish you well. At least you have tried, and found out for yourself how hard it is to do something instead of merely talking about it  And Arnab, ‘ferocity’ is  a rather odd word to apply to a teacher. Did you mean that word, or something close but not quite the same?

Sunday, April 08, 2012

Ten years of flying solo - yay!

Today is a day I can call a red-letter day in my life without dramatic exaggeration. It was exactly ten years ago that I tendered my resignation to that school where I had done my last salaried job (a fourteen-year stint, no less). I had become tired, disgusted and totally frustrated with the way things had been going there (see the letter here), and my wife and I had together decided that enough was enough. Since I obviously had certain rigid standards of which they were falling increasingly short, and since I could not do a thing to turn things around, I should quit, become a free man once more, and try my luck in the open arena of the world, with only God as my master. I can assure you it was not a sudden or painless decision.

I left telling them I neither liked nor wanted the job any more, and I believed I could do much better for myself, still in the teaching profession, on my own. Many of my colleagues said pretty loudly behind my back that I was an arrogant fool who was soon going to get his comeuppance, and even hoped to see me come back in sackcloth and ashes, begging to be reinstated. When I didn’t, and things didn’t work out quite as they had figured, their chagrin knew no bounds, so they mounted a vicious, no-holds-barred whisper campaign to slander me, in the fervent hope that it would ruin my reputation, and force me off the turf for good. God and my family know what we went through and endured. Let me pass lightly over this, though, because the point is that we not only survived but thrived, and ‘Vengeance is Mine, said the Lord’ is one of my most favourite quotes from the Bible: many of these creatures will live to rue the day they spoke and spread evil about someone who had never hurt them – except indirectly, by his own work, showing them up for what they were. One consequence of it that I must mention, though, is that it has not only made me firmly unsocial for the rest of my life but persuaded my daughter to be tough-minded, and have as few ‘friends’ as possible…she will not make the same mistakes I did for so long.

Now it’s been ten years. A whole decade of being ‘unemployed’, a seventh of a normal lifespan, nearly a third of a man’s working life! No middle class man in India with a  single income and a family to support and a child to raise quits a safe and cushy job in middle age (I know how little work schoolteachers do) if he can help it to go it alone. I took an incredible risk, knowing the full burden of it, and I have come through: not unscathed, no, but vindicated. The children who were last in my care in class ten the year I left are grown men at work now; the children who come to my tuition today hadn’t even been admitted to that school then, and have often heard only vaguely, wonderingly, that I was a teacher there once upon a time, and couldn’t care less. Those who came in as children have now learnt enough of jealousy and invective to abuse me, or of gratitude to thank me for what I did for them, according to their characters. But the facts are thus: I am now far better known for the work I do than the school had made me; I make a  much better living, I am far, far freer to do my own thing my way, the numbers enrolling for coming years keep swelling with the passage of time; my wife is content with the kind of life I live, my daughter has grown up the way I wanted (which is something that very few parents can say, given the kind of norms I live by), and God alone can destroy me now, as and when He pleases: I can cheerily look forward to retirement without having to depend on any man’s friendship or support. Not a bad report card, though I say it myself, and I’d like to meet some men who have done better against that kind of odds. Obviously I don’t count doctors and engineers whose parents have made their beds for them even after they were 30…Yes, I am a proud man, and I have earned my pride. Not for them to lecture me about modesty who are desperate to show off trifles like cars and houses and jewellery and club memberships and trips to Umrica because they have never been able to achieve anything of significance in their lives, such as independence and self-respect and being called ‘Sir’ by everybody they meet, from garage hands to managing directors, from policemen to netas.

All this is not meant for gloating or preening. I want my life, my example, to be a reassuring beacon light to a lot of young people who are being brainwashed by their parents and ‘teachers’ into believing that in this country only crooks and cheats, flatterers and opportunists and mindless crammers choosing ‘safe’ career avenues and sacrificing all principles and ideals at the door of expediency can hope to survive and succeed; that only bootlickers and backstabbers and time-servers and oppressors have a ‘future’. Not so. You know your job well, you work long and hard, you stick to some time-tested principles, and, only God willing (there’s nothing in modern experience that can contradict this ancient wisdom – karmanye vadkhikaraste/ ma phaleshu kadachana), you win out. No matter what happens to me tomorrow, no matter whether I grow rich or poor hereafter, no matter how long I live, no one can rub out the success-story of these last ten years. And so I go to sleep content tonight. If my daughter starts off by being as lucky and as well-endowed and as determined as I have been, she will do far better still by the time she reaches my age. That much I know.

Oh, before I forget: someone should tell K. K. Devasy (I would send him the link myself, if I knew his email i.d.) how eternally grateful I am to him for helping me so mightily to make up my mind!

[P.S.: Nice to see the member count has just touched 250. I shall be glad for comments on the previous blogpost to keep coming in. And no more posts for a while: I want this one to take me past the 100,000 visits mark, so it will be something to remember. Let’s see how long it takes!]

Monday, April 02, 2012

Engineer or bust!

A small boy who has just finished his secondary level board examinations (ICSE) came to see me the other day to say hello, to ask after my health, and to tell me about his plans for the immediate future. He was the quiet, sober, attentive, diligent and reasonably intelligent type: far from well-read and hungry for knowledge, of course, but the type that is sure to do well, in today’s climate, in whichever line of study and work he chooses for himself. I naturally wished him well, and said I’d be glad if he keeps in touch. The sad thing – for me – was that he too (groan, yawn) is determined to go into engineering. Ever heard of the phrase ‘siren song’?

Will someone explain to me this craze that has absolutely possessed this country? I have written on this before: see, for instance, this post which is now almost two years old. In my day it was bad enough (a fool of a headmaster cast one glance at my ICSE marksheet and said ‘You are going in for science, of course’ – and nipped in the bud what might have been a far more rewarding career, though I eventually gravitated towards my amour propre anyway…), but now it has become nothing less than a mania, a pandemic. Just about everybody wants to become an engineer, from a banker’s son to a paanwallah’s. The truly mad, sad thing about the whole business is that a) most of them – often their parents, too – have no idea what engineering means and what kind of career it offers, b) most have never thought it necessary to find out about it, nor about what other options they have, c) most of them will just drift into whatever stream they get according to their ranks in one entrance test or another, and spend four listless years learning very little, because, frankly, they are not interested, d) after college, they will get into very run of the mill jobs (even totally unrelated ones, like chemical engineers going into IT, simply because they cannot get anything else) and spend the rest of their lives being quietly frustrated – as I can see with thousands of ex-students, who cannot say what they are doing with their lives besides shopping, eating, partying, watching TV, yelling at spouses and children, quarrelling with colleagues, envying slightly more ‘successful’ neighbours and relatives or preening on Facebook, or they will switch courses and go off into entirely irrelevant careers like management or public administration, which is a total waste of an engineering education (I have this on the authority of an ex-director of IIT Kharagpur, besides knowing that you can get into an IIM with a degree in history if you can pass the CAT), or lament for the rest of their lives that they didn’t go into something more interesting that they were born for …

I wrote in an op-ed article in The Telegraph titled ‘Is the Joint Entrance Examination a social evil?’ almost thirty years ago that what was actually happening was that India was churning out, broadly speaking, millions of third-rate engineers (glorified mechanics, no more, doing repair and maintenance jobs most of the time) and probably losing out on countless first-rate artists, writers, teachers, musicians, sportsmen, film directors, judges, administrators, lawmakers… all types needed to create a healthy, balanced and truly progressive society, and who was really gaining anything from it except those who ran cram shops (think Aakash and FIITJEE)? I have been saying this all my life since then, as a teacher, public preacher and parent. The wonderful thing is that most people I question have no answers (and they often mind terribly that I make them uncomfortable by asking them to think about answers), or they dumbly repeat the same lines I have heard ten thousand times before – that ‘society’ expects them to goad their children into this common cattle pen so that their wards can find some ‘status’ and ‘security’, or that the ‘other lines’ I talk about (‘general line’, many of these semi-literates call them, though I have never heard of anybody, not excepting the likes of C. V. Raman and Amartya Sen and Sugata Bose, who studied in a ‘general line’ rather than physics or economics or history) are only meant for talented people, whereas they know that their children are ‘mediocre’, and shouldn’t dare to venture into such dangerous waters. Well, there are three things I want to say about it: A) what very great status and security does a common engineer’s job grant, for heaven’s sake? I don’t meet too many engineers who make even a lakh a month, and especially in private sector jobs there’s hardly any security of tenure, even, leave alone freedom and respect: both union leaders and senior management treat you like scum! B) how do all these parents know that their children are merely mediocre, and have no special talents to cultivate? and C) if it is so widely agreed that engineering is the only refuge for mediocre people, how do they then dare to turn around and start talking about how their ‘talented’ kids have got into engineering school? How weird a country this is, really, where you can have your cake and eat it too; one can be a moron and a talent at the same time!

What I truly wonder about is why so many people keep coming to me every year: and this year I am wondering more than ever, because my classes are filled to bursting, and people keep on dropping in and phoning at all hours of the day still, literally begging to let their kids in, desperate even to enroll for the next year, bluntly refusing to take no for an answer. But why, I keep on asking myself as well as those who are closest to me – what do these people want, and what miracle do they expect from me? I am just an English teacher, and they are all convinced that their children absolutely must become engineers, for which you certainly don’t need to know more English than the average lower-division government clerk, and good marks in ICSE/ISC don’t matter much anyway, since bright kids and idiots alike go on to get admission in the very same schools and colleges, and on top of everything else, I don’t advertize and I am not even in the business of ‘guaranteeing’ good marks in examinations; instead I keep telling them like an endless litany that marks depend partly on luck and partly on the children’s own merit and effort! Nobody, I am quite sure, gives a damn for the things that I myself consider important parts of what I teach: the ideals, the respect for language as the greatest invention of all time, the love of knowledge in its entirety, good virtues like courtesy, diligence, cleanliness, quietness, punctuality and keeping promises and hating gossip, the importance of the right and power to make up one's own mind, informed concern for the neediest in society, appreciation of art and literature, fascination with history, admiration of justice and contempt for the merely rich… all that goes into the making of civilization, all that has always been dear to me: nobody, I am sure, cares a busted nickel for all that. Yet so many hundreds of parents – many of them well educated too – are somehow convinced that their wards absolutely must get into my tuition; and they are willing to go to absurd lengths for it, in terms of the people they are ready to urge to coax me to the kind of money they are willing to spend and the time and distance their children will have to spend/waste routinely simply coming and going. What folly is this?

Just as an aside, I teach plus-two level students, too, in the commerce and humanities streams – mostly female, alas, for obvious reasons – and it’s been almost 24 years now, and I have little to report that is encouraging. I find the overwhelming majority of them to be not only intellectually mediocre but lazy, listless, unfocussed, interested only in fun and games, really… as though they are already sure that they are merely killing time until their parents can marry them off to (no need to hold your breath) engineers. Every year I think I am going to shut down those batches; every year just one or two gems in the muck keep me going – other than the money.

The most cynical among my well-wishers keep telling me that I am wasting my own time philosophizing and under-selling myself instead of making hay while the sun shines. ‘Just jack up your fees and sit back and watch the fun!’ they have been telling me for years; ‘those who abuse you will go on doing the same, those who are desperate to come here will pay whatever you ask, and about the rest, who cares, as long as you can get rich?’ Now that I am growing old and quite sure that I have a big market but must give up all hope of bringing about any social change for the better, should I finally decide to give them my ear and just ensure a cosy retirement for myself? I can go on at this seven-days-a-week rate for at most another ten years, after all!