Category Archives: outcasts

The ‘Practical’ person

Being practical seems to be normal state of being for the majority of the people. In fact, being practical is often equated with maturity, adulthood or ‘coming of age’. It is considered that magical threshold beyond which you finally understand your place in the cosmos and how it (the cosmos) works. You now can share the table with the big boys, with that glass of liquor essential for socialising among practical people.

Watching so many people make this transition (since this is the age (25+) around which most people take that leap into the abyss) gives fodder for thought and amusement. The first visible change is in clothing: you shift from the ‘Yo!’ clothing of your foolish, immature, larval/pupal stage into the big, beautiful wings designed by van Heusen or a cheaper brand. Running shoes are now, unfortunately, used only while running. Spectacle frames thin down (while your own frame fills up), your favourite sports watch gives way to a less accurate, but way more expensive, analog watch.

The second visible (and audible) change is in language and mannerisms: gone are the golden days where you could spout four letter words with gay abandon; you start to address each other with great civility, which most of the time is not very sincere. You start talking intelligently about topics you have no clue about, especially those pertaining to the economy and politics, with Facebook being the ideal place to show your ignorance and practical (i.e., worldly) bent of mind. You look forward to shaking hands with other practical people and vice versa; you would never shake hands with children or other such degenerates. Phones are now a means to balance bank accounts rather than multiple girlfriends.

Though I find practical people amusing, it does not mean I don’t respect them. It is within the structures created by practical people that impractical people like vegans and scientists (or what is worse, vegan scientists) can survive and even thrive. They are the cogs of that giant machine we call civilisation, on which some lazy, good-for-nothings get a free ride. Practical people run the world, may be even helped create it, though it is unlikely they would ever be able to conceive of it. They are normally peaceful, predictable and law-abiding, since they find comfort in following law, ritual and custom, without thinking too much about them.

Adulthood is a most unfortunate period in life. It is the time when practical people combine the worst qualities of the infantile and senile. Thus, they are stubborn, cranky, narrow-minded, think they know better, and are proud of being so. You can bully children and ignore the old, but these options are unavailable when dealing with practical people. Because of their strong conviction that they understand the world and how to go about life, they are fiercely combative when faced with something outside their ‘operating parameters’, and go on to advise the ill-informed on the correct ways to lead life.

The practical life is like the perfect prison: you know you are in it, and are proud of being in it and never want to leave it. It ensures you can keep body and soul together by an incessant performance of certain rituals and without the anguish of constant self-doubt or constant self-improvement. Practical people do admire people from outside their world, but only if they gain success in terms that make practical sense, like money or fame. However, this admiration is accompanied by the belief that they can (and should) only dream about such things from the safety of their couch.

It must have been a practical person who first thought of cursing people using the phrase ‘may you live in interesting times’. But then, this is a Chinese curse, and the Chinese are known to be very practical people. Being practical ensures you fit in, blend, and most importantly survive. Being practical means understanding and accepting the way the world is structured. It is something like travelling using public transport: Only an impractical person will wait for a direct bus from Yeshwantpur to R.T. Nagar (for example). The practical person understands it is easier to get a bus to Mekri circle, change over to a Yelahanka bus, and then finally get a bus from C.B.I to R. T. Nagar. If you don’t understand the previous sentence, you obviously are not a very practical person.

On the other hand, the impractical person, will have to wait for half an hour, finally give up, hitch a ride half the way, walk few kilometers, lose her way, ask a few people for directions, and finally land at her destination half an hour late. However, during this ordeal, she might have met some interesting people at the bus stand, some kind person willing to give her a ride, noticed a small bookstore that is only visible when you walk past it, increased her patience, humility and stamina, and probably figured out some problems with the public transport system which, if she ever gets into a position of power, she might change for the better.

A world overrun by impractical people will be unliveable; in the same way, a world ruled by practical people will be brittle and intolerant. While civilisation may be by, for and of practical people, it makes a lot of practical sense to carry along the free-riding man-children who carry in them the seeds of unconventionality which will make all the difference when what is practical today becomes impractical tomorrow.

The difficulty of being an ‘Indian’ in India.

As a working definition of an ‘Indian’, “A person rooted in tradition, but eager to learn and absorb from other cultures” will do as well as any other. The number of people in this category is quite small, but surveying the present political and economic landscape one can see that this species is being driven toward extinction like many other non-human ones in India.

To begin, one must differentiate this definition from the more schizophrenic prescription that Vivekananda had for Indians to develop, that Indians learn from the West about the material world and they learn from India about the spiritual world. Considering the recurrent crises in economies modelled after the Western ones and the Climate issue that is a direct consequence of such an arrangement, to claim that economics is something that we should learn from the West can defnitely be challenged. Anyone travelling across India will tell you that most Indians are as spiritual as the investment banker on Wall Street. Therefore, whatever else one accepts from Vivekananda, this particular prescription must not be accepted. Rather, a more subtle approach which also recognizes and appreciates local economic arrangements and great thinkers from the West is in order.

The reason I call Vivekananda’s prescription schizophrenic follows from my previous post – material arrangements cannot be divorced from non-material ones. For example, a culture that does not allow cruelty to animals cannot advance anatomical knowledge through dissection of live animals – some other means will have to be found. A culture that treats some people as untouchable cannot provide equal opportunity to all. Thus, whole hearted appreciation of western material arrangements can lead one quite far away from one’s cultural roots, leading to what has been called as ‘anxiety nationalism‘, made famous by bands of thugs known as Shiv Sena or Rama Sene. It can also lead to complete westernization, but these are too busy shopping in malls to be politically active, so they are not very relevant to this discussion.

The intellectual scene here seems to be dominated by what one can call ‘Instant Nirvana’ intellectuals – those that read a couple of (propagandist?) books or blogs and claim to have understood the realities of India today, forming what is known as an epistemic community – their world view, shaped by few leaders of the community, is infallible and any opposition to it can only be due to delusion of the opponent. A good example is of people who seem to suffer from the ‘persecution complex’ – Babur tried to destroy Indian culture, therefore all Muslims are bad, and therefore we need to acquire nuclear weapons. One cannot really follow the logic, but similar arguments will be used against Chinese, Christians, anyone who does not worship at a temple anywhere in the world. Another example is of those who see Indian history as a systematic oppression of everyone by the Brahmins – We know from Marx and other great people that all history is about someone oppressing someone else, bourgeois culture is symbolic of this oppression, India is ‘of the Brahmins, for the Brahmins’.

Like most ideology, both these examples are both true and false – unless one understands that, there is no dialogue, only rhetoric and finger pointing. Here lies the problem for someone who wants to see the whole elephant rather than only some of its parts – say one is true, you are branded a Communalist. Say the same for the other, you are branded a Marxist. There are a couple of reasons that I feel have led to such a sad state of affairs.

The first is the domination of Indian political language by non-Indian terms – Anyone or thing is either Left or Right, Communalist or Marxist, Middle, upper or lower class, neoliberal or Maoist, Libertarian or Statist. One can always appeal to Samuel Huntington, Koenraad Elst, David Frawley or if one has different tastes, Marx, Foucault or Bakunin are always present. All one needs to do is look at the newspapers – the immense epistemic void in our political vocabulary will be immediately evident. There is even a Dalit group called the ‘Dalit Panthers of India’, reminiscent of the Black Panthers of the USA. This, of course, is not to deride people who have made contributions to the understanding of India from their own perspective, but just that understanding India from an Indian’s perspective seem to be contributing very little to the public sphere (another western term, sigh!!).

Not that we have not done anything in understanding ourselves – M. N. Srinivas, Muhammad Yunus, Ela Bhatt, Krishna Kumar are names that immediately come to mind. The problem may just be that of language – almost all of the Indian intellectual sphere is dominated by English speakers who cannot (will not?) read intellectuals who write in the vernacular. As Ramachandra Guha laments in a recent article, the multilingual intellectual is a rare species in India. Unless the language and epistemic barriers are broken, one sees little hope for furthering mutual understanding and respect. Are there political and economic frameworks that have been generated within India, which can by used to analyse a country that always frustrates external analysis ? I don’t know, but neither does anyone else I guess.

The second is the pseudo war-like situation that we find ourselves in nowadays – Opposing intellectual groups are fighting to imprint upon the populace their imagination of India. Thus, if you are not for us, you are against us. There are giants like M. K. Gandhi who are claimed by most groups for their own due to the fact that none really understand him well, but lesser mortals are forced to take sides, else a side will be chosen for them. War always has a homogenizing influence on society – unity, after all, is strength. Thus the preponderance of rhetoric from all groups, rather than meaningful dialogue. We cannot even have sane dialogues within the country, and we want to further dialogue with Pakistan!! Hypocrisy is nowhere are colorful as in India. Easiest way to see this is to see programmes like the ‘Big Fight’, which is the standard intellectual fodder (gulp!) for most Indians. The point of people to get onto such programmes is to abuse and condescend rather than understand.

These are some issues that one can immediately see, without too much analysis or reflection. Maybe there are more. But the fundamental constraint stays – unless you understand yourself from within, and understand yourself from another’s perspective, without getting carried away by either in any field – economics, politics, science etc. etc., there is really no hope for a truly ‘Indian’ identity.

Of harlots and men.

Short post, just a few random thoughts. Been doing the Bangalore-Mysore trip quite a few times in the past few months, and usually reach the station at B’lore late in the evening (Since I don’t believe in political correctness, BengaLuru won’t appear more than this one time). A walk through the subway to the bus station from the railway station transports you quite literally (and metaphorically) to the underbelly of this silicon(e?) valley wannabe.

Women lined up, reclining against the subway walls, which are stained with chewed betel leaves, showing that if these women are comfortable in these surroundings, one can only imagine what their regular surroundings would be like. They bear the lewd looks of passersby and retort with stinging remarks to the equally stinging and demeaning remarks of abhorrent men. Being highly enterprising businesswomen, they answer even cursory glances with a questioning stare : “How about it?”.

Another interesting group of people are beggars. Their methods have become more and more sophisticated (or crude?) as time passes by. The woeful, pained look which appears only when someone passes by (I have actually seen the transition from normal to unhappy happen!), using kids and handicaps as props, and resorting to touching and pawing at people as a last try. Atleast people would give in not to be pawed at. How many times have we not seen people jumping back or warning beggars not to touch them?

The third group is that of the hijras. This group is probably discriminated against the most, you would not find one travelling via public transport even if they are able to afford it. Wearing loud makeup and using equally loud voices and claps to get paid to get away from a certain place is one of the very few options for them to make money. Though they are getting organised to fight against it, how widespread such a movement would be and how it would help change public perception is to be seen.

The thing to be noticed about all the above mentioned groups is that they are highly incapable of earning money in ways which does not have to reduce them to sideshows due to a large number of factors. Also to be noticed is that the only way to keep body and soul together is by feeding off the lust, shaky ethical stands and disgust of the rest of the society respectively. Interestingly also, these are largely urban phenomena: the more affluent the city, the more prevalent are members of these groups. What inferences can one draw from such observations ? Each will have their own views, i’ll leave it at this.