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Sunday, April 21, 2013

Chit funds, cheat funds

Once more a ‘chit fund’ scam has exploded over West Bengal, large sections of the public are furious, and a few heads are beginning to roll, while many others are praying that they are too high and mighty to be singed.

I have been following the pattern since I first started reading newspapers – aeons ago – and some things never change. Let me put them down categorically.

Everywhere in the world (remember Ponzi schemes and Bernie Madoff?), some people want to get seriously rich quick.

A fool and his money are soon parted, so the less foolish among these wannabes make money by exploiting the greed of the more foolish: typically by telling a lot of people they will get back far higher returns than banks and other legitimate/mainstream financial institutions offer if they ‘invest’ in the various ‘business projects’ that these companies claim to have floated. Typically also they are engaged in areas like real estate, movies, sports, the stockmarket, the tourism/entertainment industry, TV/newspapers and so on, if not also in gambling, drugs and the flesh trade.

These scamsters bet on the long established truism about human nature that there’s a sucker born every minute, and mankind in the large never learns from history, so they will never run short of prey. The majority of their victims are poor and lower middle class people – your typical small farmer, rickshaw puller, petty shopkeeper, construction worker, door to door salesman and the like, who could be pitied for lacking the kind of education that would make them cautious about the Big Bad World (and who therefore deserve, and get too little of, protection by the government), but, tragically, there are also a lot of people who claim to be ‘educated’ and ‘experienced’ (at least before their children) and yet are led by their greed and gullibility into burning their fingers badly. Thousands of them in my own town!

As I wrote in a blogpost in connection with Lalit Modi two years ago, you need only four things to get rich quick – arrogance, shamelessness, violence and greed. Well, maybe I’ll add one more: connections in high places.  Absolutely no other qualifications required, and all you need to keep praying for is that luck might not suddenly desert you until you become too big to fail, like the directors of Citibank (or Sahara India?). Within a few years or at most a decade, you will move from slum to five star environs, from your dad’s rickety cycle van to a spanking new Audi or BMW, you will have legions of minions, from armed thugs to trained lawyers and CAs and MBAs to protect your back and do all the legwork and dirty work for you (people who have been to IIT and consider themselves ‘successful’ because you pay them at most a measly couple of lakhs a month: think of those who work for Vijay Mallya or Anil Agarwal of Vedanta fame), you will have sexy bimbos swooning on your arms, you will throw parties where the champagne flows like water even though you might never have passed class eight and you owe billions to millions which you have no intention of ever paying back – and much of society (read the mass media, including and especially the parts of them you personally own) will be going gaga over you as a great success, even a great man. And that success will keep begetting success, because nothing attracts prey to you as the smell of big money being squandered on a lavish scale, no matter how it has been made.

It is not good or wise to blame it all on the politicians, for a number of reasons: a) politicians do not tell people to be both stupid and greedy, b) some politicians actually try to fight the ever-present menace of sharks devouring minnows, and get little thanks for it, c) a lot of people feel politicians have no business trying to teach them to restrain their greed and tell them to be less foolish, d) in a society where almost everybody is trying to get rich quick (so why not the politicians too?) – and given the fact that it has always been very hard to make big money quickly by honest means – a lot of such ‘human interest’ stories will keep happening, because most ‘successful’ people do get rich only by duping the foolish and the greedy, e) politicians, alas, can thrive and even get some good work done only by winking at, if not actually being hand in glove with, the sharks whose sole aim in life is to make money no matter how, that’s the way the world is, f) too few people notice that many of the money bags become politicians themselves, and play a not insignificant role in breaking, bending or changing laws so that they can keep playing their dirty games with less and less to worry about. And to those who say – at age 20 or 80 – that ‘come socialism, and the world will become paradise’, this incorrigible sceptic will retort ‘Ho hum. Read history, or keep dreaming.’

Meanwhile, I started earning my living early, and am nearly high and dry, having followed my own three maxims resolutely: a) make just enough for your needs, keeping an eye on the far future, b) don’t envy and slaver after big money, c) don’t listen to anybody, however fancy his car, his office or his calling card, who offers to make you rich in a year or two. When I have needed worldly advice, I have taken it from the likes of Shakespeare and Ben Franklin and Tagore, not your hot-shot twenty something MBA in finance, be he from Harvard or IIM…and I cannot pass on better advice to those who are coming after me.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

'fatherly' concern

It’s been five years since one of my most beloved students, with whom over a period of 19 years I had developed a very close relationship after his father died in his teenage, abruptly broke off all connections with me and vanished from my life. The wound has not healed yet – not least because it keeps being rubbed raw every now and then, and maybe also because I have not succeeded well enough in making myself immune to the vagaries of human relations, because I take people too seriously, give them too much space in my life to work mischief in. So I was remembering how many others have been temporarily – usually for a few years – so filled with fascination and affection for me that they started, like this old boy, not only to call me a ‘father figure’ but, carried away by a sudden upsurge of emotion, publicly declaring that they loved and respected me even more than their biological parents. Trust me, there have been not a few, though most of them male (females have their own problems, which I have learnt to accept with a sigh; they generally stick with ‘silent admiration’, which I have dealt with adequately elsewhere). When I get that sort of feedback, I grin wryly inside my mind, and wonder how many months such ardour will last, how soon I shall fade into oblivion. I am rarely surprised.

I have been lately meditating on death, and love, and solitude and things like that. Also, on being a father (interested long-time readers will remember earlier posts I have written on the subject, such as A father’s abiding woe and The world we are making for our children). Not only because I have dealt with very many different kinds of fathers professionally all my life but because trying to be a good father has been one of my strongest and most abiding ambitions since the moment my daughter was born (it’s not a very common ambition, I know too: far more people want to be ‘successful’). And now a major phase of my life and hers is over: she’s gone to live away from me. For the rest of our lives, I shall have my memories, and she will have the opportunity to judge for herself, from a distance both mental and physical, what daddy did for her and meant to her…

As I was saying, I have dealt with a lot of fathers in the line of work, and I would be the last person to generalize about what they mean to their children – especially after the children have grown up. I have routinely met highly irresponsible, uncaring, uninvolved, uninterested fathers, who believe their job is only to supply the money and make occasional pious or threatening noises when the kids seem to be stepping out of line, period. I deal with complaints about absolute bullies, control freaks with warped outlooks whose sole (or at least major) aim seems to be to make life miserable for their children. I meet with doting ninnies who raise pampered brats who will never, mentally speaking, stand on their own feet. I counsel fathers who take limitless lip and worse from their ill-brought up wards because they are too ‘afraid’ to draw the line. I also happen to know some generally nice people, but I have met precious few fathers in my life whom I can admire and call worthy of loving and respecting, unless you confuse ‘respect’ with fear, old habit, greed (of property to be inherited in due course of time) and socially required hypocrisy. Remember that quote from Oscar Wilde?

And I do not merely criticize other people, either. My own father was a miserable specimen. The most charitable thing I can say about him is that he neglected me instead of tyrannizing, and so he didn’t entirely succeed in ruining my life: I grew up my own way, by my own lights, learning everything from my own mistakes and follies and people whom I had elected to look up to, and that has given me a degree of freedom and confidence and self-respect that most people of my age and milieu can only timidly dream of. Also, my grandparents on my mother’s side were my real parents, and much of my ideas about what good parents should be like I imbibed from them, as well as from great fathers both historical and fictional, men like Tagore and Atticus Finch, some absolutely sublime teachers among them.

So I have long had unusually clear ideas about what a father should mean, and what you should mean if you say you love and respect him, what kind of commitment it entails, and how careful you should be before you call someone a father figure. Few people feel any genuine enduring love even for their own fathers: why drag other people into that sacred precinct unless you mean serious business, and have the spiritual strength and depth to carry the burden of that seriousness for any length of time? What’s the point of my seeing more of the Sudipto Basu and Stotra Chakraborty types anyway: haven’t I seen enough, are there still lessons to learn?

Love, I have said a thousand times in my class, is the most used and most abused word in the world, even when applied in the commonest contexts, as between romantic couples as well as the parent-child relationship. Martin Luther King jr’s autobiography is tellingly titled Strength to love. Loving requires wisdom as well as strength of character. Lacking these, no one can ever truly love anybody: one will pretend to oneself, make believe with the so-called loved one, vacillate, gush one day and drop off the next, cheat, suspect, blame, hurt, restlessly keep looking for ‘better alternatives’… in short, do everything in the name of love but love.

As some people with eyes may have noticed and even reflected upon, I have put ‘father’ even before ‘teacher’ in my one-line self-description which is permanently fixtured on top of this blog. Also, my conscience is clear: I have always believed that as with money so with love, one must give before one can even hope to receive, and I have tried to give of myself, as a true teacher must, unstintedly to thousands over a very long working life. Hundreds acknowledge their debts fondly but don’t venture too far in declaring their love and fealty; a far bigger number forget, because they never found anything of lasting interest in me; a few score bad-mouth me. To the first category I openly declare my loving gratitude over and over again; the others I, too,  ignore and forget, because the lack of interest is mutual. But those who make me write this sort of stuff I can neither forgive nor forget…

Saturday, April 06, 2013

Susan Patton's wisdom

A woman named Susan Patton who graduated from Princeton University in 1977 – now divorced, a corporate professional with sons currently at Princeton themselves – recently wrote a letter to The Daily Princetonian which has gone viral on the net. I read about it in The Telegraph of Kolkata on April 02, and the article had been lifted from The Times of London. In it, she gave some (unsolicited-) advice to girl students at Princeton: the gist of which is, ‘a) girls, you need to get married, b) you can’t afford to wait too long, you have a much shorter ‘shelf life’ than men, c) find a good match in Princeton itself, because never again will you have a choice of so many smart young men to pick from, remembering that as Princetonians, we have already almost priced ourselves out of the market’. She has been furiously criticized by feminists of all hues for spreading retrogressive ideas – some have even said it must be an April Fool joke – but she has stoutly defended her views, saying she has only girls’ best interests at heart ( see this link, and this).

So here’s my take. And this is only for level-headed people to comment upon, not loony sexists of either gender, mind you.

To start off, I do think there are both biological and psychological differences between men and women that cannot be simply wished away, and it is wise to take them into account while making life’s most important decisions. Smoking does harm women more than men in many ways, for instance, and men as a rule can handle loneliness much less efficiently on the whole. I do believe also that, as far as possible within the limits dictated by the minimal indispensable needs of social cohesion and stability, individuals should be free to make their own choices relating to matters like higher education, friends, careers and family life. I further believe that a lot of women, especially in the rich liberal western democracies, have been swinging too far on the side of material/professional achievement at the cost of private pleasures, and ending up often richer but unhappier in the long run, so it’s good that some people should tell them to go for a reality check (Reader’s Digest recently covered a middle-aged jet setting US government official who chose to quit her job to get back to the intimacy of family life which she had been missing sorely). And I have no sexist bias in this regard: I have always believed that too many men also sacrifice too much for the sake of career advancement, and for most people it turns out to be a bad bargain, seeing that they get ulcers and early heart attacks and broken families, and most don’t even end up at the top of the pile, where the big money and real power are. Billionaire and/or cabinet minister compensates for a lot of things, but imagine ending up as a retired faceless deputy general manager/vice-president of some company manufacturing nuts and bolts?

Having cleared the air, let me get down to some serious criticism of Ms. Patton’s views.

1.                  Girls just need to get married? Jane Austen is breathing down our necks with a vengeance. Sure, marriage is a wonderful thing – I am one of those who have always said so, and encouraged all my old boys and girls to get hitched once they are past their mid-20s and found a good partner. But putting marriage over and above everything else, and saying women need it much more than men? What utter rubbish! I can vouch from a lifetime’s experience, including my own, that if it’s a question of ‘need’, men on the average, once their youth is behind them, ‘need’ it far more than most women do, at least in our milieu! I wonder which planet Ms. Patton is coming from…
2.                  ‘Shelf life’? Yes, yes, I understand perfectly, of course, and sadly admit that for the vast majority of people it is probably a very valid and important concept too: if a girl is nothing more than a commodity to be transacted, if she is being hired on a long-term basis as a cook/housekeeper/childbearer/comforter/social trophy rolled into one, youth does give her some advantages which vanish rather quickly as compared with men, so… but what a tragic insult to all, men and women alike, who have even briefly dallied with ideas of love, or even mutual affection, regard, willing dependence, caring and being there for each other! God has been kind to me, and helped me know a few women including my wife who have near infinite shelf life: I cannot imagine they will grow less attractive and interesting to me with age; indeed, it is rather my prayer that I may still remain halfway interesting to them as I grow old. So I have an aching pity for the millions upon millions of young women who need to bother about their diminishing shelf lives, and it seems they are not restricted to ‘backward and orthodox’  countries like ours, either. This is the United States, in 2013!
3.                  This one is asinine, on at least three counts. a) Only Princetonians are smart? Since when? I can rattle off thousands of names of ├╝ber smart people who never went to Princeton (or even Harvard or Yale or MIT or Stanford or Oxford or the Sorbonne for that matter). What sort of IQ/EQ/GK and level of self-esteem do you think they have who need to call themselves smart publicly, and link their ‘smartness’ to the educational institutions they attended? b) How much does smartness have to do with formal academics at all? There are thousands of top level writers, artists, sportsmen, criminal masterminds, generals, statesmen, scientists, philosophers and tycoons living and dead who have never gone to elite colleges (or dropped out because they found it boring and stultifying) – but they have had a lot of salaried types in the Princetonian mould working for them as glorified drudges! It is the same IIT myth of India on a much larger canvas: those who are really smart do things to change the world, those who are mediocre but have timid souls as well as brittle egos go for ‘elite’ institutions in the hope of being hired by the former tribe…unlike them, I am truly ambitious for my daughter, and I would much rather advise her to walk in the footsteps of a Dhirubhai Ambani than tell her success lies in getting into an IIT (or Princeton-) so that she may be given a job in one of the Ambani-run companies, or what is worse, marrying an IITian (or Princetonian) with a mid-level executive’s job with no real money, no more character than a cog in a wheel and no life to call his own! c) Ms. Patton, divorced, blames her failed marriage at least partly on the fact that her ex-husband was not a Princetonian. How pathetic so many people’s ideas remain right into old age, really. I read a book when I was a boy, titled Married to genius, which details how sad marriages between extraordinarily gifted people have often been – Tolstoy and Einstein and the Lawrences and Curies and Woolfs, besides analyzing the reasons why. Check out if you like the failed marriage of Stephen Hawking, too. And it goes without saying that I am talking of people who are vastly smarter than anything Princeton can ever ‘produce’, unless you think being a mere investment bank executive is an index of smartness, which of course any sane man will dismiss as rank idiocy. Then look around (which means, above all, read books!) and find out for yourself how many marriages between so-called ‘common, ordinary’ folks have been deeply satisfying lifelong, if not pure bliss, and you will begin to realize how much is needed from both parties besides smartness, and indeed how little that kind of ‘smartness’ counts, to make a happy marriage. If Ms. Patton’s marriage has been a failure, I can bet my shirt it had far more to do with lack of empathy and shared goals and mutual respect and interest in each other above all than any difference in their college grades and IQ levels can indicate.

These are the grown-up people peddling life-skills advice these days. I hope my young readers will appreciate even better after reading this essay why I insist on saying ‘A fool, when s/he grows old, merely becomes an old fool’…