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Wednesday, March 18, 2015

The banality of evil

There are all sorts of irritants that rob me – usually briefly – of my peace of mind: one is an increasing frequency of people, young and not so young, turning up without appointment or accosting me on the street or telephoning to solicit a peculiar sort of favour. ‘I tutor people in this or that subject, and you are so very well known to students and parents, so do please send some to me’. I find this most irritating for all sorts of reasons.

First, I don’t like people who ask for favours: always thought of them as weak characters, parasites. I like doing some, but mostly unasked, and mostly for those who seem truly needy – not necessarily in the financial sense. Second, you don’t become a reputed teacher by asking around for students: you build your own reputation the only way, the hard way, over a long time, with skill and dedication and perseverance and a bit of luck, which I prefer to call God’s grace. It’s not a salaried job that you can wangle by buying fancy degrees and pulling strings or sucking up to the high and mighty.  Third, how lacking in self-respect can people be to be able to ask for favours from a complete stranger – it being understood that if I obliged them, they’d never come back to say even a formal thank you? Fourth, I can count on one finger how many people have done me any kind of favours at all, and most of them were done unasked anyway, because they were true gentlemen (or the – very very rare – woman). On the other hand, almost to a man (and woman), people have shown me that the worst in them – ingratitude – is brought out precisely when I have done them favours of any substantial kind, not excluding giving them attentive and sympathetic time when they were tired and confused and lonely. If life has made me misanthropic – I don’t hate men or women in particular, I dislike most people – can I be faulted for it? I urge you to remember that hundreds of people still take fond pride in claiming that Sir loves them, and has time for them, despite all that so many people have done to destroy his love of humanity…

Not very long ago, I wrote a post titled chhotolok (The mean and the base, roughly translated). The longer I live, the more I become convinced that most people are, beneath a (usually very thin-) veneer of civilization, essentially chhotolok, understood in the sense that a) they are pettily and blindly self-seeking, b) they feel no shame in seeking favours, but cannot even conceive that in a truly civilized society, that has to be a matter of constant give and take, c) they make a very big fuss when their sense of self-esteem or self-interest is hurt, but will either simply not admit that they are hurting people (perhaps thoughtlessly – I lost count long ago of people who said ‘I didn’t mean to hurt’) all the time in the course of their pursuit of pleasure and ease, or go to absurd lengths to justify why they weren’t really, seriously in the wrong, d) far too many people, alas, find pleasure only in giving hurt, some way or the other. When the expression ‘the banality of evil’ registered first on my mind while reading about the much publicized trial of Adolf Eichmann, it set many bells ringing, for I had long thought myself, without actually coining that expression, that most evil, and evil people, are basically banal rather than cinematically monstrous. The Vlad the Impaler or Eichmann types are very rare (and becoming increasingly so), whereas the girl who goes around breaking men’s hearts lightly, telling each in turn ‘I was only having fun, why did you take me seriously?’ or the housewife who nags and scolds the life out of the man who can neither kill her nor run away (remember Rip van Winkle and Joe Gargery and Walter Mitty?) can not only be found in tens of millions but they live long and enjoy their lives, in their own twisted way: they are both evil and banal. We ordinary mortals don’t have to cope with Vlads and Eichmanns in our quotidian lives, but only fate can save us from the latter types, and fate is rarely kind. The ex student who, pretending to be an educated adult interested in my mind, could read my essay on the Buddha (probably the one time I reached something like grandeur in a lifetime of writing) only to comment ‘What long sentences!’, and the scoundrel who lightened my purse with a sob story about a hurt labourer at a construction site are equally banal and equally evil, firstly because they whittle down my faith in mankind, and secondly because, having had to cope with a world full of such people lifelong has made me, ever so slowly, much more like them than I’d have cared to be. As the poet said, his ambition was ‘praanpone prithibir shorabo jonjal’ (I shall try all I can to cleanse the world of filth). Thank God he died young. That was part of what motivated me to become a teacher, and I often feel I have lived too long, given the very little good I have managed to do.

And when I say evil must be brought to justice, I am not thinking of Vlad and Eichmann.

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