I have believed since I was very young that the most important sign of maturity is both wanting to and being able to make up one’s own mind on more or less everything under the sun that concerns one’s own life. As an elderly friend I respect said, ‘I will not of course always make wise decisions, but the point is I will make them myself and then enjoy or suffer the consequences; what else marks me out as a man rather than just another member of a faceless herd?’ Yet all my life I have watched people either completely unable to make up their own minds, or terrified to. So they go around consulting all and sundry, usually working upon the premise that if most people I know agree upon a certain course of action it must be the right (or at least safe) thing to do. Here is a random sample of questions people of all ages agonize over, though the ‘importance’or urgency of the questions varies with age:
Should I/my son study science or arts or commerce? Should I attend this or that coaching class? Should I bother much about examination scores? Should I go to this or that party? Should I keep long hair/wear short skirts? Should I have a girl friend/boyfriend? Should I tell my parents about it? Should I have an extra-marital affair? Should I tell my wife/husband about it? Should I shop at this or that mall/become a member of this or that club? Should I gossip with my friends about the latest scandal I heard? Should I watch an ‘adult’ movie? Should I take up this or that job? Should I smoke or drink, and should it be done on the sly? Should I tell my doctor about my problem?… I could stretch that list ad infinitum.
Both youngsters and adults come to me for advice, as they have been doing since I was myself very young. There are a few things I have noticed about almost all of them: either they merely want me to confirm them in their prejudices (‘See, Sir also says you must go for engineering/not have an affair at this age, just as I told you!’) or they are terribly guilty or afraid to take a decision which they feel inwardly compelled to, and are only seeking some sort of solace or reassurance from me that nothing awful is going to happen if they go ahead with what they want to do (they sometimes want to do quite pedestrian things, like kissing a girl/boy, and sometimes utterly weird ones, like ‘I’m studying physics and want to switch afterwards to an MBA to have a safe career, but basically I want to make a name as a writer, is that okay?’). For long I have enjoyed helping them, but these days, after handling too much of the same thing over and over again (and seeing confused teenagers grow into confused adults despite everything I said and did for them), I get very tired sometimes. It is neither possible nor pleasant to keep telling people they are doing all right even when I know they are being common at best and foolish at worst; it is also wearying to have to tell craven people that sooner or later they must make up their minds and choose between options because they can’t have everything unless they want to regret missed opportunities all their lives, and if they can’t do that no outsider can do it for them anyway, so what the heck? – I actually say this aloud very often, and then they go away not only confused and hesitant as before, but resentful of me that I did not resolve their dilemma with a painless wave of some magic wand. How childish most people are all their lives! All that swells with age, it seems to me, is the paunch and the ego.
Mind you, just because I advocate independent decision making, I am neither an anarchist nor a blind rebel without a cause: indeed, I fear the one and despise the other. As my readers will know, I set great store by order and discipline and old-fashioned good manners in social life, regretting much that is wrong in this country solely because our rulers (including heads of families) do not sufficiently appreciate their value to civilized living, nor have the courage of conviction to impose them without fear or favour. In personal life and habit, as those who know me closely will vouch, I live in a very staid and conservative style: I dress simply, paying no attention to fashion fads, I cut my hair short, I do not use trendy abuse in my speech, I do not zoom around on a macho bike, I do not stay out late, I am content to be much closer to a stick-in-the-mud family man than a wild bohemian, I happily put up with my wife’s occasional puja at home provided it is not too long, loud or expensive, and I neither walk in noisy political processions nor subscribe to the idea that throwing a few bombs can solve any problem. And yet, ever since I was a teenager, I have insisted on taking my own decisions – seeking the advice of only those I personally respected (not necessarily parents), and never considering myself bound to follow anything that conflicted with my own reason, conscience or gut feeling. That has applied to things major and minor alike: nobody ever told me to smoke a cigarette or forced me to go to a movie, I dropped engineering and medicine because I wasn’t interested, I had affairs when I chose, got married when I wanted to, quit jobs that I didn’t like, read books because I wished to read them, went travelling when and where I desired, avoided partying like the plague, and reared a child the way I thought best. And look, at this age I have very few things to regret having done!
So why on earth do people bother much more about physics and chemistry and marks and looks and pay and what mummy and daddy will say and what their wives will do and what latest gizmos are on sale instead of this most important of all questions: ‘When will I learn to make up my mind?’ Give me an IIT topper who has never had an original thought and an 18-year old who knows his own mind, and I know which one I won’t waste a second giving attention to.
The paradox is that the more the ad men extol and celebrate ‘freedom’, the more restrictive our real lives seem to become, the less independent our minds (and we seem to be growing so used to it that most of us cannot even see that anything is amiss!) ‘Children’ of 18-20 still have all sorts of decisions taken for them by parents, including when, where and with whom they should go out or chat on the Net; older people do unquestioningly what the boss/TV/wife tell them to do, modern ‘adults’ go chhee-chhee over things that would have been par for the course several generations ago: Romeo would have been arrested for pedophilia today, Shakespeare hauled up before the Race Relations Board for writing something as ‘prejudiced’ as The Merchant of Venice, and the Wright brothers punished instead of merely ridiculed by their father for ‘wasting their time’ trying to build a flying machine. Most people cannot imagine that they need not watch cricket when everybody else is doing it, or go pandal-hopping at puja time if they live in Bengal.There are millions who work in offices where they are constantly monitored by CCTV cameras in the name of security, the way only prisoners used to be not so long ago, something that Charlie Chaplin mocked so tellingly in Modern Times. And most don’t even seem to mind: rather, they are probably happy that the burden of taking decisions and being their own men has been lifted from their shoulders for ever, lifelong. But it makes me feel as though I am living in a cage, gilded though it might be, and the walls are closing in…which reader dares to tell me, after reading this post closely, that s/he still believes that the world is ‘progressing’?