Frontiers to freedom

Is humour for one offensive to another? Is fun at one’s expense mirth for another? When does humour transgress limits to become a slight? Are we touchy when we are made fun of but can’t hold back a smile when another is being mocked? These were questions that  were bounced off in a debate on television yesterday. The context was a PIL (public interest litigation) by a Sikh group in the Supreme Court of India against the infamous ‘Sardarji’ jokes that stereotype male members of the Sikh community as being dim-witted.

The Americans for their English (‘Americans haven’t spoken English in ages’, Prof. Henry Higgins, immortalised on screen by Rex Harrison, famously said), the British for their accent (when attempting to speak in Indian languages, for instance), the Germans for their love of ‘organization’ and their lack of humour (see the delightful ‘Those Magnificent Men and their Flying Machines’) and Indians for their love of loudness – in everything from speech to honking on the road to colourful attire – are all stereotypes that humorists unapologetically milk to the hilt.

While artists of all genres (from stand-up comedians to actors, writers, painters and media-persons) are unanimous that they have the freedom to spoof whoever they wish, they stop short of political incorrectness. Certain communities (of which the brahmin community is not one) and certain religious adherents (of which the Hindu affiliates are not one) are sacrosanct, their sensibilities and sensitivities are not to be trifled with.  As for the rest the said actors, litterateurs et al refuse to be held responsible for thin-skinned audiences.

Can there be frontiers to freedom? Should there be? Wouldn’t talk of ‘limits’ to freedom become oxymoronic? Perhaps, an answer can be found in this ‘Fool’s Prattle’. Says D V Gundappa in his classic work of philosophy for the layperson, Mankuthimmana Kagga:

The roving bird responds to the call of its nest, the ambling cow lets the rope on its neck hold it back. What is life if not bound by any value?

Self-restraint and allowing oneself to be restrained by societal norms are limits that make freedom a happy choice for all and not just the ones who claim their right to it. To be civil is not to be unfree!

Passion vs Commitment

 

We often hear of people being passionate about something.  Not unoften, we also hear of people being committed to something. Is it better to be passionate about something or committed to something?

Passion is synonymous with fervour – a feverish excitement.  Commitment implies an emotion more sedate and steady; it is synonymous with dedication and a sense of responsibility. Passion connotes restlessness; commitment, dependability. Passion is a heightened feeling that seeks an outlet in activity external to the self. Commitment is a quiet force that impels the individual from within. Passion seeks fulfilment, whereas commitment is its own reward. One can be the architect and agent of one’s own happiness in the latter case, whereas in the former, satisfaction is contingent on  external factors.

Interestingly, despite their differences, it seems that commitment could metamorphose into passion, or one could be passionately committed to something. On the other hand, commitment to one cause can come in the way of passion for another vocation and passion for one thing can disrupt one’s commitment to something else.

Introspect: the mantra for success is within yourself

 

Successful people attribute their achievement to having a goal and working towards it purposefully.  But the not so ‘successful’ people have goals too; they also work hard to attain these targets… This being so, why do some people succeed in reaching or surpassing their goals while others with equal or even more talent, zeal and expertise fall short?  Introspection, perhaps, holds the key.

Before taking the plunge, successful people invest thought and time in assessing their strengths and drawbacks – personal qualities, lifestyle factors imposed by the circumstances of one’s upbringing and the social milieu in which one lives. This helps them set goals that are well suited to their temperament and life conditions.  Reaching their targets becomes easier since a high degree of self-awareness has informed their decision at the goal-setting stage itself. Their goals are based on what they have learnt about themselves: their interests, capacities, and inclinations. They have thought of answers to questions such as: why do I want to do this? Do I have the knowledge and skills to do it? Are there compromises I will have to make? Are there any trade-offs? Will I be able to accommodate these?

Having set the goal, and having started on the path, the successful individual does not simply doggedly keep at it.  Rather, they stop to take stock periodically. Self-reflection is an instinctive exercise, a force of habit: am I on course or is there any course correction needed? Have I overestimated my capacities: are there any skills or knowledge I lack? Have I underestimated the demands of the task: should I seek guidance or outsource some of the work?   At any stage, if their assessments warrant, they may not hesitate to shift the goal post or alter the contours of the objectives, limit them or even give up an endeavour altogether in favour of a more viable alternative.

Hard work is important in order to succeed, focused hard work even more so.  The ability to work hard is an admirable strength acquired by persistent training. But getting to the goal, for those who succeed in getting there, is not a simple act of jumping into the water and then learning to swim, or making a dash for it without pausing to look back. Their hard work reaches fruition as they have cultivated the habit of introspection as well.

Time, and Time Out

Time: It is The great equaliser.  It ticks away relentlessly at the same pace for every creature. Some compartmentalise time into neat packets and fit their work into these packets.  They are the ants of Aesop.  When the rain comes, their store ensures they don’t go hungry unlike the grasshopper that was singing through the summer and hence had to starve through the rain.

But then, there are the ants and grasshoppers of Maugham. The ants work assiduously, no lesser than the ant made famous by Aesop. But the grasshopper has been adopted as a pet. It can afford to sing or dance, summer or winter, autumn or rain as it gets everything on a platter. (Read Somerset Maugham’s Ant and the Grasshopper).

Now, where does that leave us ant-like creatures who are caught between not wanting to starve, and not wanting to strive, but not wanting to eat off a platter either?

Poor Pothi!  Poor Pothi? Poor Pothi.

 

Pothi is the name of my neighbour’s home-bound domestic help – a smart slip of a girl some ten or so years old.  I have exchanged a few smiles with the child, but can’t speak her language.  So I can’t claim to know what is going on in her heart and her head as she goes through her days, sweeping, dusting, mopping, cleaning, washing, and though I haven’t actually seen it, probably cooking, and, most likely, polishing shoes and ironing clothes of a family of four and an endless stream of live-in guests.

She is constantly in demand: ‘Pothi, close the gate!’ call the two other children who live there – one a little older and another a little younger to her – when they go off on their bicycles to call on friends or to their tuition classes.  ‘Pothi, come and bowl’, it is, when the children are short of a hand at a game of cricket.  ‘Pothi!’ the house-owners call when dark clouds threaten rain and clothes have to be taken off the line, when there is someone at the door, when the car has to be washed, the garden watered, the compound swept, the garbage cleared when the municipal workers have played truant, leaving several days’ garbage bags hanging from the tree outside their gate, when guests have to be attended to, their children entertained … and so it goes on, hour after hour, day after day.  Pothi has not had a holiday in years. Poor Pothi!

But is Pothi the one to feel sorry for?  While the children of the household grow up in boisterous abandon, frittering away their energies on facile attempts at play – except when exams are round the corner, gibbering away in acquired accents of English-medium ‘international’ Indian schools,  trying to skip or skate away their extra kilos in feeble fits and starts, Pothi is learning many life skills: to concentrate on the work at hand while all around distractions abound, to be tough since indulging in self-pity is not an option, to be circumspect about exhibiting emotions as hand-me-downs and leftovers become par for the course when others get the treats and the pampering, to learn how to manage time and to multi-task, doing every task well as there is no other option.  While the children of the household could grow into maladjusted adults because they have never learnt to lead independent lives or to live responsibly, Pothi will be a competent and capable person, an asset to the larger society.  Besides, when day in day out there are reports of child-abuse and child-trafficking, when children run away from public institutions meant to shelter them, and from the homes they were born in because they cannot withstand the drudgery or horror, when the world Pothi was born in and the larger society we live in are such cesspools I wonder, should I describe this child next door, who is growing up in a decent family ambience, as Poor Pothi?

But then again, what accounts for this patent unfairness?  Why should one child be bonded in labour, seeing to the comfort of other children her age and the adults who are blind to the child in her?  It is only because Pothi was born into an economically deprived family.  To what avail legislations and government departments, activists and civil society organisations if sections of our people are so poor that they cannot even take care of their own?  When a family has so little to sustain itself that it has to ‘sell’ off one of their kids, what would happen if a child of theirs is ‘rescued’ and restored to them?  What would happen if, after investing in their dreams of a university degree and a job to follow a society can assure a child like Pothi neither? Can a #ChildLabour law or a #RightToEducation law operate in a vacuum?  The reality of the poor, like Pothi, and their life worlds have to be factored in when framing laws for their welfare.  Strengthening structures and systems has to precede, not follow policy implementation.  Only fail-safe supporting frameworks and their continuous monitoring will ensure that the intended ends are truly realised.  The Pothis of the world are not commodities that can be traded in; equally, they are not properties that can be used to enhance the prestige of platform exhortations[1].

[1] A term used by V.T. Lakshmi in her early twentieth century note, A Suggestion Offered.

I too have been discriminated against …

… but no one has spoken up for me, and so many hundreds of thousands like me.  Because I’m born a brahmin – that most hated of castes in the land of my birth. 

We are portrayed in school text books as vile creatures who hold fellow humans in contempt and deny them the right to be aspirational.  Our mannerisms, dress, customs and appearance are ridiculed in movies and literature.  We are stereotyped by associating us with certain identification marks drawn from our language and appearance, which too are fodder for mocksters. We are often deprived of admission to professional courses of choice because no performance is stellar enough for the likes of us who are designated a ‘forward’ community.  When it comes to government or public sector jobs, we have to ensure our performance falls within the narrow band of the highest scorers.  We are discriminated against at every stage of our lives because history holds our ancestors responsible for various social ills that have percolated to the present day. 

Ours is a fast dwindling community, with each subsequent generation choosing to restrict the number of offspring – in a sense, you could say we are a ‘minority’ too.  But no one has, or ever will, stand up for us or question the discrimination against us – because, you see, we are brahmin.

Censorship and Debate: a lesson from ancient India

Censorship may not be all bad.  Problem is, it doesn’t work.  True, all minds are not cultivated to the same degree, trained sufficiently or mature enough to approach with suspicion, question before absorbing the import of what is being said, or to suspect intrigue.    But you cannot even censor your own kids: they will find ways to use the words, read the literature, and do the acts you prohibit.  So, where does that leave larger entities that try to clamp down on free speech, thought and expression?

Western systems, since millennia, appear to have considered it prudent to censor thought: Plato, in Republic, goes into some detail about what young minds should be exposed to, and Rousseau’s Emile is premised on this.  But in India, what has come to be called ‘Hindu’ philosophy preferred healthy debate to censorship, which is one of the reasons it  keeps giving rise to breakaway cults and heterodoxies that become strong, individual congregations in their own right.

Nyaya, a precursor of Western Logic, for instance, is among the earliest systematised schools of thought rooted in the ‘Hindu’ philosophy.  It predates the Christian era and was the fountainhead of several treatises on Tarka, which may be loosely translated as reflective analysis or argument.  Tarka, an important scholarly enterprise of ancient India, which was honed as both a science and an art, was instrumental in establishing the claims of one philosopher or philosophy over another, often in an assembly of scholars, laypersons and aristocrats.  The written word was also used to powerful effect at transformational change by following the norms of scientific debate.

Contemporary Indian polity – by which term I mean the nation and its various organs from government to media to the public at large – would do well to reclaim this ancient Indian tradition of logical reasoning and healthy debate to counter what are perceived as deviant opinions rather than try to cow down discomfiting strains of thought with censorship.  Rather than ban a book, film or play, write a book, produce a film or stage a play with an alternative viewpoint.   Don’t take the easy way out and just try to wish away what you don’t like or want with a blanket ban.  The atheist streams have had their space in Indian society: from Carvaka-s of ancient India to Dravidian movements of contemporary times.  No one banned them.  They did not gather steam or drifted away from their moorings because the larger sections of Indian society found greater meaning in non-atheist thought.   If you want your view to prevail, you will take the trouble to give it the contours of reason and substance.